NASCAR “Narrowly” Avoids a Behemoth Tragedy ….

April 27, 2009 |

Yesterday, was HUGE in the American sports landscape. NFL teams were busily gambling on picks to round out rosters, NBA and NHL teams were playing hard, playoff style contests and a full slate of Major League Baseball games were played without a hitch.

But, the biggest story of the day ALMOST regarded NASCAR. And, it would’ve been bad —- very bad. I realize most readers didn’t watch yesterday’s NASCAR race, at Talladega. Baltimore is not a NASCAR hotbed, and it was 85 degrees outside.

That said, the last lap of the “Aarons 499” nearly became fodder for every news outlet in the world. It was a “catastrophe in the making” and surely would have irrevocably destroyed the reputation of auto racing.

If you haven’t seen the final few hundred yards of the race, check it out. With a little bit of technology and a LOT of luck, a couple dozen people are still alive this morning. Subtract either of these two factors, and the biggest sports tragedy, in decades, unfolds on a sunny, spring afternoon, in Alabama.

As Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski (a part-time rookie driver) “drafted” through the dog-leg and toward the finish line, Keselowski did exactly what racecar drivers in 2nd place do ….. he tried to pass the leader. Edwards, for his part, did exactly what the leader does ….. he tried to block.

This was the recipe that almost ended the lives of numerous spectators, and possibly, Carl Edwards, himself. When the two cars tangled, Edwards’ Ford Fusion turned sideways, creating a “lift” under the car. At nearly 200 mph, the machine became airborne …..

These racecars are designed by former NASA engineers and brilliant minds, but there is always the capacity for the unexpected. As quickly as Edwards’ car went up in the air, it started to come back down. The cars have built-in mechanisms that enhance this feature.

However – AND I HAVE NEVER WITNESSED THIS – as it came back down it was struck, at a nearly 45 degree angle by the oncoming car of Ryan Newman. This is essentially the same lift effect of a bat hitting a baseball. With Edwards’ car dropping by gravity and being struck by a nearly 200 mph missile – it shot directly back in the air and toward the crowd in the lower level seats.

As Edwards’ car struck the “catch fence” separating the racetrack from the grandstands, the chain-link structure exploded. And, by the GRACE OF GOD, a portion of the car’s frame and chassis struck the concrete wall below the fence. This, alone, prevented the car from entering the crowd.

If the car was a few feet higher, thus clearing the wall, ABC/NBC/CBS/CNN/FOX and numerous other affiliates would be on-scene of the biggest tragedy in the modern era of sports, this morning. Thankfully, it didn’t happen.

But, I’m left to ponder ….. is this preventable? Indeed, I think it is …..

First, NASCAR must do something about “restrictor plate racing.” It’s dangerous for the competitors and basically removes the skill and structure of racing. I don’t have the answer – and I’ve never worked for NASA – but if they can put a shuttle in space, they should be able to figure out a way to create safer racing conditions at Talladega and Daytona.

Second, just remove the first 30 rows of seating at Talladega and Daytona. Trust me, you can’t see anything from such a low vantage point, anyway. I suppose this could equate into the loss of maybe 10,000 seats and some tangible revenue. But, let a car get through that fence and kill a few people. Such an event would make the Dale Earnhardt tragedy look like a backpage blurb.

Auto racing and specifically, NASCAR, is dangerous ….. there is no way of getting around such a fact. While NFL, NHL, MLB and NBA athletes are certainly more physically gifted with brute strength, racecar drivers have more guts, and to be blunt – BALLS – than athletes in any other sport.

And, while danger exists, it should be minimized for fans and competitors. After his “wild ride” yesterday, Carl Edwards predicted “somebody is gonna get killed.” He’s right …..