On May 3, 1987, Bobby Allison’s Buick LeSabre blew a tire, careened and went tumbling down the front-stretch fencing at Talladega, ripping apart the protective barrier between the 200-plus mile-per-hour race cars and the thousands of people in attendance in one of the most horrific crashes in NASCAR history.
The crash, coupled with Bill Elliott winning the pole for the race, the Winston 500, with an average speed of more than 212 miles per hour, coerced NASCAR into making one of the biggest competitive changes in its history — the use of restrictor-plates at its two largest ovals, Talladega and Daytona.
The plate, which restricts the amount of air that can mix with fuel, brings the horsepower numbers way down, making them slower. In theory, the restrictor plate was supposed to make the racing safer and make for a better show for fans since unrestricted racing at the tracks was leading to one- or two-car breakaways and noncompetitive racing.
If only it were that simple.
These words are not new. Minus some talk about carburetors, I actually wrote them for a column that ran in May 2009 after Carl Edwards’ spectacular crash on the final lap of the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega.
And six years later, here we are again.
Luckily, Austin Dillon’s accident on the last lap of the Coke Zero 400 Monday morning only resulted in minor injuries to five fans, with just one having to be transported off site.
Seven people were injured in Edwards’ 2009 accident at Talladega. Kyle Larson’s engine went into the stands during an Xfinity race at Daytona in 2013 injuring 28 people, 14 of whom had to be transported off site.
Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood III defended the track’s safety features as protecting the spectators from the mangled mess that Dillon’s car became.
“I’m really proud of the fact that the fence worked,” he said. “We will take this situation, we will learn from it, we will analyze it.”
The 22-foot catchfence did throw the bulk of Dillon’s car back onto the racing surface, so, in essence it performed as designed. However, just like in the Edwards and Allison crash, there were injuries to fans.
I get that racing is dangerous. Anyone who has ever strapped into a race car gets that. That’s part of what makes drivers our heroes. They accept that risk and they walk the fine line between life and death at 200 miles per hour.
But fans don’t accept that risk when they come to the track and Dillon’s crash at Daytona last weekend (or should I say Monday?) is more proof that things need to be changed at NASCAR’s largest ovals.
Discussing plate racing in 2009, Edwards said, “it’s something we’ll do … until somebody gets killed, and then we’ll change it.
“NASCAR puts us in a box. … I don’t know how I’d change this racing. I know it’s a spectacle for everybody and that’s great and all, but it’s not right to ask all these guys to come out and do this.
“What if the car goes up in the grandstands and kills 25 people? At some point, they’ve got to say, ‘Look, we’ve got to change this around a little bit.’”
Eerily similar to what Dillon said Monday morning.
“It’s not really acceptable, I don’t think,” Dillon said. “We’ve got to figure out something. I think our speeds are too high, I really do. I think everybody can get good racing with lower speeds, and we can work on that and then figure out a way to keep cars on the ground.
“That’s the next thing. We’re fighting hard to make the racing good. I hope fans enjoy all that. We don’t. That’s your job. You go out there and you hold it wide-open to the end, checkers or wreckers, and hope you make it through.”
I slightly disagree with Dillon. Speed is part of racing. You are going to have cars running around at 200 mph on a track as big as Daytona.
The problem comes in when you have 43 cars running within inches of each other for 400 or 500 miles. Even with the best drivers in the world, you will have mistakes and mechanical failures. And, again, those are acceptable risks for the drivers, not the fans.
NASCAR and the track owners need to do more to mitigate the risk for fans. Whether it’s taller fences (NASCAR did mandate taller catchfences after the Edwards crash) or moving the fans back from the first few rows of seats or not starting races at 11:42 p.m. (wait, that’s a whole other story), something has to be done to make plate racing safer.
Kudos to NASCAR for what they have done by way of safety at the track (had that been Rockingham in the mid-’80s, I would have been pressed against the catchfence during the race), but there is still some work to do.
Andy Cagle writes a weekly column about auto racing. Follow him on twitter @andy_cagle or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org