Wrecking Isn't Racing

True NASCAR fans come to see powerful cars helmed by elite drivers run clean and competitive races from start to finish – By Kay Bell

More than two months have passed since Talladega’s spring race, and I’m still angry. I’m mad at NASCAR, and I’m mad at the TV networks. They are mutual enablers of the twice-a-season debacle in north Alabama. But mostly I’m mad at the so-called fans that head to the tracks or turn on the TV expressly hoping to see “the big one.” I have two words for you: Go away!

There’s nothing more exciting than two highly skilled drivers running wheel to wheel, but wrecking is not racing. It’s a tragic by-product of a risky profession. Not only can it ruin the lives of those involved, it also diminishes the sport.

I’m not so naive as to think wrecks will never happen. You can’t put 43 adrenaline-fueled drivers into 3,400-pound vehicles and not expect some incidents. I’ve seen my share in the 20 or so years I’ve followed the sport. In most cases, nothing more was damaged than car parts, nerves (mine) and pride (the drivers’).

But there are times when that’s not the case, like Rusty Wallace in 1993 and Elliott Sadler in 2003 flipping end over end. Their violent rolls at Talladega were 10 years apart, but eerily similar. Thankfully, both men walked away.

In between those vicious licks came the 1996 high-speed nudge that almost sent Ricky Craven careening literally out of the race, again at Talladega. Other drivers weren’t so lucky. A freak 2001 Darlington crash under caution essentially ended Steve Park’s promising career. And while the term miracle is overused, that’s exactly what happened when Ernie Irvan survived his awful 1994 practice-session wreck at Michigan.

Another practice incident tore the heart out of NASCAR royalty when Adam Petty, one of NASCAR’s brightest young stars, lost his life in 1999 at New Hampshire.

And there was the sport’s darkest day, the 2001 Daytona 500, where Dale Earnhardt Sr. hit the wall. Even now, I vividly remember the silence at the track and from the broadcast booth.

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All those horrific instances are why this recent post-Talladega comment from a supposed fan irritates me to no end: “If you weren’t a fan of NASCAR before, this Talladega made you one!”

Excuse me? Having a car go end over end qualifies an event as great?

You can say it’s no big deal. Carl Edwards was OK. He even had the sense of showmanship to hoof it across the finish line, carrying a piece of his shredded #99 with him. But neither that nor the earlier carnage made that race great. It would have been more fun to see whether Brad Keselowski could have captured his first Sprint Cup win going wheel-to-wheel with Edwards.

The races that earned NASCAR a place in my sports-loving heart are those memorable for, well, the racing. The two Jeffs, Burton and Gordon, side by side to the finish line at Darlington in 1997 with the 24 barely holding on. Or Gordon losing by milliseconds in 2001 at Atlanta to Kevin Harvick, who had just taken the wheel in Dale Sr.’s car. Though the elder Earnhardt earned his Ironhead nickname because of his rough-and-tumble driving style, I believe he was looking down and enjoying how his young nemesis Gordon and his young protégé Harvick were going at it.

Sadly, though, it appears NASCAR itself would rather promote spills over skill. With the encouragement of TV, the sport regularly hypes the potential for the “big one” at Talladega.

They know such hysteria will get the attention of those rubberneckers who gawk at highway crashes. Real fans know there is an element of danger in every race but want to see their on-track heroes defy it – and really race, not meander through a series of cautions broken up by a few hot laps.

So where does that leave Talladega? NASCAR won’t stop racing there, and it shouldn’t. But the powers that be need to figure out a way to make those races better and safer. Restrictor plates and smaller fuel tanks aren’t working.

Kay Bell is an Austin, Texas-based writer. When she’s not yelling at her television during NASCAR races, she blogs about taxes and other financial topics at www.dontmesswithtaxes.typepad.com.