Originally created 04/21/01

NASCAR's death roulette

It will be amazing if at Sunday's NASCAR race at Talladega, Ala., there is not a serious accident. And it will be a miracle if no one is badly injured or killed, because NASCAR has ginned up some rules that are great for spectators who like spectacular crashes, and bad for drivers.

Although the racing association had the opportunity to modify rules that made its longest and fastest races more dangerous than ever, NASCAR officials stalled out. So the same conditions that faced drivers at the Daytona 500 - which led, in part, to the death of driving legend Dale Earnhardt - remain intact for one of the scariest races of all at Talladega's Superspeedway, racing's largest venue.

The association changed rules to make all the cars perform nearly identically. By requiring shields on carburetors to alter the fuel-air ratio, NASCAR reduced horsepower by a third and brought speeds under 200 mph. Although drivers don't have the throttle they used to have, they also don't become airborne as often.

NASCAR then required the addition of small aluminum strips on the rear spoilers, resulting in cars not being able to break from the pack. With cars having nearly the same power and drafting profiles, these tightly packed missiles race together for 500 miles, all with reduced control of the driver, who has a crippled throttle and at the same time is being sucked into the draft - and the rear bumper - of the car just inches ahead. If the racer ahead loses concentration, everyone behind gets the egg beater.

Just this year such a condition led to a 19-car pileup at Daytona where, fortunately, there were no deaths. But a similar scenario looms at Talledega's 2.66-mile track. This is Russian roulette.

NASCAR, responding to criticism for lackluster races in 2000, changed the rules to please the crowd, and sacrificed safety in the process. The new rule on the rear spoilers made racing more perilous, and created a lot of tension about this race.

Maybe that's exciting to crowds, but it's important to remember that Earnhardt, who won 34 races at Daytona, was a critic of the restrictor plates. Instead, he advised that NASCAR build bigger fences and let drivers race their cars unhampered.

Earnhardt was right.


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