NASCAR had the opportunity to build on its fan base Saturday night when the UAW-GM 500 roared to life seconds after Southern California's 34-31, come-from-behind victory over Notre Dame.
NBC viewers who were curious about stock-car racing simply needed to stay put following college football's thriller in South Bend, Ind., where the Trojans charged past the Fighting Irish with three seconds remaining. But as the prime-time TV cameras cut to Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., NASCAR failed to seize the moment.
A rash of tire failures sent a succession of cars slamming into the track's concrete retaining wall and scared drivers so witless they barely raced at all. Instead of dicing for position as NASCAR's best do so expertly, racers kept safe distances between one another and didn't push their cars to their limit, many said afterward, for fear of blowing a tire. Despite the precautions, the 500-mile race was halted for a crash roughly every 20 laps. Nearly all of the crashes were caused by blown tires; not necessarily the fault of the tire supplier, Goodyear, most drivers argued, but the result of speeds generating more heat and abuse than the tires could withstand.
Things got so calamitous that NASCAR officials considered cutting the race short or stopping it altogether, NASCAR President Mike Helton said shortly after 1 a.m., when he met with reporters after a grateful Jimmie Johnson celebrated his good fortune in Victory Lane.
On advice from Goodyear, NASCAR instead took the unprecedented step of ordering teams to pump their right-side tires with at least 50 pounds of air pressure, stripping crew chiefs of a key variable in determining how a racecar handles. It was unclear how effective the edict was because tires kept failing until the race finally ended -- 4 hours 11 minutes after it began.
"Everyone that was a part of the evening certainly would like to figure out how to not have another evening like this one," Helton said. "It was extremely undesirable."
The race tightened the battle for NASCAR's 2005 championship, with Johnson moving into a tie atop the standings with Tony Stewart, who finished 25th after puncturing a tire when he ran over debris from someone else's wreck. The race also made clear that Lowe's Motor Speedway has work to do before NASCAR returns in May 2006. Track president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler acknowledged that one change will be repaving the 1.5-mile superspeedway, with the goal of slowing speeds. Saturday's speeds escalated higher than anticipated after Wheeler had portions of the asphalt ground down last spring to smooth bumps and orchestrate more passing.
"This was just a tough night -- a tough night for everybody," Wheeler said. "Nobody liked it. I certainly didn't. But I think things change. We'll get back to normal next time."
The crash-filled show at Lowe's underscored an essential truth about motorsports: Speed has very little to do with great racing. There's a point of diminishing returns when racecars go too fast. On a superspeedway, the naked eye cannot discern the difference between cars zooming by at 185 mph and 195 mph. More importantly, speed makes great racing impossible when cars go so fast they eclipse the tires' ability to withstand the abuse. Racecar drivers have a high tolerance for danger. But put them in conditions in which they lose faith in their cars or tires, and they'll quit racing full-out until they regain confidence that they're in control.
"I don't think I ran one lap as hard as I could," said Carl Edwards. "That's just the way we had to race."
Added Kyle Busch: "I'm only driving my car 85, 90 percent out there -- not even pushing it the final 100 percent because I'm scared to death seeing all the other people with problems out there. It's just terrible circumstances to race in."