Politics of Big NASCAR Wreck

On Sunday, April 26, at a NASCAR race at Talladega SuperSpeedway in Alabama, Carl Edwards’ #99 Claritin-sponsored Ford Fusion spun sideways at over 200 MPH just a few hundred yards from the finish.


Air rushing underneath lifted the entire car eight feet off the ground, smashing it into the windshield of Ryan Newman’s racer and then sending it flying into the catch fence separating the track from the spectators. The fence, laced with heavy cables, bounced the car back into the track as it was designed to do, but flying debris injured 7 spectators, none of them seriously.


Many are calling for more safety regulation of auto racing and this has happened before. Just say “1955” to any knowledgeable race fan, and you will see a shake of the head.


In 1955, stock-car drivers Larry Crockett and Mike Nazaruck died in crashes at Langhorne, Pa. National icon and back-to-back Indy 500 winner Billy Vukovich was killed in that year’s race seeking his third consecutive victory. Jack McGrath, Manuel Ayulo and Jerry Holt, all dead. And on June 1, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France, an inexperienced racer flipped into the crowd, scattering steel, fire and mayhem. 82 people died.


Worldwide, auto racing came under fire. US senator Richard Neuberger from Oregon wrote to president Eisenhower demanding that racing be ended: “I doubt if there is as much blood shed in Spanish bullrings as today is occurring on automobile race tracks in this country.”


After the Edwards’ crash – the race was won by rookie Brad Keselowski – there are calls for NSACAR to rein in the sport, even among the drivers. And to understand the debate, you need to go back to 1987.


Talladega is the largest oval track in the world at 2.66 miles around. It has 33 degree banked turns to allow big heavy stock cars to travel at high speeds without losing momentum in the massive turns. The banks are as tall as a five-storey building and that steepness is enough that many people, even healthy ones, cannot walk up the angle. The turns are called ‘self-cleaning’ – so steep that wrecked cars and parts often roll down to the bottom after a crash.


Stock car speeds had been building over the years since NASCAR’s founding in 1949. On April 30, 1987 Bill Elliott set the world record for a stock car qualifying speed at Talladega at 212.809 MPH. But in the race the next day, Bobby Allison’s car launched itself off the track in a crash and, in an event eerily similar to Edwards’, hit the fencing, spewing debris into the grandstands, and then bouncing back onto the track.


Allison said of the Edwards crash, “Well, it’s scary, but it’s exciting for the fans. It always has been. Part of the attraction of Talladega is the potential for danger. It was pretty spectacular, but it was nothing compared to what I did. My wreck was way bigger, way more guard rail, way more cars involved.”


As a result of the Allison incident, NASCAR decided that it needed to slow the cars down, that the momentum built by a 3,500 lb. NASCAR racer at Talladega simply had become too dangerous. They ordered that engines used at Talladega and also at 2.5 mile steeply-banked Daytona must use what are called ‘restrictor plates’ which restrict the amount of air going into the engine and slowing the cars somewhat.


With the ‘plates’ installed, the cars in a Talladega race now routinely run around 190 MPH. But something strange happened. The ‘plates’ have caused the cars to run not strung out along the track but in huge packs for lap after lap after lap, with drivers often running side by side and bumper to bumper, often three wide, at high speeds throughout the race. It actually frightens some drivers, but spectators love “plate racin’”.


Some consider Talladega and Daytona to be the best races of the season. And almost every Talladega race has had what has come to be called The Big One, a huge crash that has taken out as many as 27 cars in one incident. “Uh-oh, here she goes! Here it is!” the announcers shout at the crash evolves. This is a big PR point for watching Talladega. The racing is awesome and so is the big crash. Rarely is anyone hurt, however.


Driving in these packs has been called “white knuckle” racing. Former NASCAR superstar Dale Jarrett said that  after a Talladega race, “your whole body hurts because you’re so tense. You don’t even want to answer any questions” because the race is so taxing mentally and physically with hardly a moment to relax for the whole three-and-a-half hours of the event.


In ‘plate racing’, cars often line up in a “freight train” or “conga line”, often two or three lines side by side at 200 MPH, and use a technique called “bump drafting”, in which the car behind actually puts its front bumper in physical contact with the rear bumper of the car in front of him. The rear car “pushes” the front car, and together they gain speed over a single car, or over cars running side by side.


At the end of the April 26 race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was bump-drafting behind Newman on the last lap and Newman appeared headed to the win. But then, Edwards, who had been running 8th, pulled up alongside in the third and fourth turns, bump drafted from behind by Keselowski. It was quite a show to watch just four cars running like two.  


Amazingly, Edwards/Keselowski picked up several miles per hour on Newman/Earnhardt, up to 204 MPH Keselowski said after. Then when Edwards was close to winning the race and Keselowski tried to pass inside of him, Edwards jiggled a tiny bit to block Keselowski from passing, and was tapped by Keselowski. As Edwards’ car was sent flying, Keselowski was taking the checkered flag, his first NASCAR win and one that will be remembered for all of NASCAR history.  


Many have said it was the best overall NASCAR race ever, with the most memorable finish of all time.


Is there a political dimension to this story? Indeed there is. Because first there will be discussions in the liberal salons of Manhattan and Georgetown about the brutal, redneck Republican sport of auto racing, and how can these dreadful conservatives watch this awful mess. Then there will be the snickering elites at Harvard and at Slate.com dismissing the blood lust of beer-swilling rural white males.


NASCAR actually is a very safe sport today, using the most advanced technology, particularly after the 2001 death of Dale Earnhardt. But NASCAR also has been the only professional sport that has been marginalized politically. Because while football and baseball and basketball are urban sports, NASCAR appeals to a more suburban and rural constituency. And like Christianity, it is under assault for its true believers. It is not uncommon to hear a liberal elitist disdaining NASCAR publicly.


When was the last time you heard a conservative politician maligning the urban LA Lakers or the urban New York Jets?




Will changes be made to prevent another April 26 incident? Yes, there is much talk today in the NASCAR exec suites. But one thing never will change: The leftist elites of America are going to continue to find every reason possible to belittle one sport because of the people who watch it. And this is the most reprehensible part of the story of Carl Edwards’ Talladega Flight. The rest can be dealt with responsibly.


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