Back at Talladega Superspeedway, safety remains the top priority for NASCAR and its drivers

By Liz Clarke
Saturday, October 31, 2009

TALLADEGA, ALA. -- The furious last-lap chain of events that vaulted Carl Edwards's stock car into the frontstretch fence at Talladega Superspeedway at nearly 200 mph in April was just the latest chilling episode at a track that has been trouble from the start.

Untold carnage was averted, with the catch fence bowing under the impact but tossing Edwards's mangled Ford back onto the asphalt as designed. Still, flying debris injured seven fans, including a young woman who suffered a broken jaw.

So before NASCAR drivers returned to the 2.66-mile behemoth for a second time this season, Talladega officials raised the frontstretch fence from 14 feet to 22 feet -- among the recommendations of an outside engineering firm retained after Edwards's crash to evaluate safety measures, according to Rick Humphrey, the speedway's president.

(The backstretch fence will be raised the same amount during the offseason.)

In addition, NASCAR took a modest swipe at slowing the racecars by reducing the opening in the carburetor restrictor plates that choke the air flowing to the engine. The smaller the opening, the less horsepower.

As a final step, track officials invited a Creek medicine man to perform a blessing at the start-finish line earlier this month and ask that "balance" be restored to a speedway many believe has carried a curse since Andrew Jackson drove the tribe from the valley where the stock-car racing's most audacious high-banked oval was built in 1969.

During breaks in practice for Sunday's 500-mile race (the seventh event in NASCAR's 10-race playoff), drivers took turns Friday lauding the decision to heighten the fence separating their cars from the fans.

"Trying to protect the race fans is obviously the most important thing," Ryan Newman said. "To me, it's more important than the drivers."

But some were of two minds about the move to slow the cars -- although "slow," in this context, is relative. The upshot may mean no more than paring a 198-mph front-runner to 196 mph.

On one hand, any reduction in speed takes a measure of violence out of collisions. And any step back from 200 mph (the unwritten maximum for NASCAR, from its insurers' perspectives) helps keep spinning, out-of-control cars from getting airborne.

But on the other hand, slower speeds also means bigger packs of cars battling side-by-side and nose-to-tail -- a sure-fire recipe for a melee if one driver slips up.

"It's worse," veteran driver Mark Martin said of slower speeds, "but it doesn't put cars in the grandstands. It just wrecks them. Wrecking these cars, we can usually handle that. But we can't handle getting [a car] out of the racetrack. Restrictor plates is the only way we know to do it, and we've got to keep the plate small enough to try to keep them on the ground."

That has been Talladega's calling card from the controversial day it opened. Even then drivers warned that speeds were treacherously high. Fearful the tires couldn't withstand the abuse, NASCAR's "King," Richard Petty, led stock-car racing's first (and last) driver boycott.

NASCAR founder Bill France staged the show with a field of no-names anyway and broke the fledgling drivers' union in process.

Ever since, the top stock-car racers have returned to Talladega twice each year with more dread than exhilaration in their gut, fully aware that at such high speeds and close quarters, their fate is largely out of their hands.

"What we hang our hat on is the competition and close finishes," said Humphrey, the track president. "We know that oftentimes somewhere in between the green and the checkered flag, accidents occur."

Mused two-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart: "It's no different now than it was 15 years ago when I was watching this series. They were doing the same thing. That potential is always going to be there."

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