Sunday, April 06, 2008


Well, Junior didn't do as well as expected at Texas today. His car stuck well at the beginning of a run, and then faded badly. He ended up a lap down in twelfth, and still fourth in the points standings.

Maybe y'all heard about Micheal McDowell's spectacular crash in qualifying. He hit the wall a ton, then flipped at least ten times through turn one. He walked away. The "Car of Tomorrow" may be responsible for his life - the Safer Barriers on the walls certainly played a part.

Diandra at Stock Car Science has an excellent article up about the crash, and the history of the advancement of safer cars and tracks in NASCAR. I highly recommend reading the whole thing, as they say. Of course, I'm a NASCAR geek, so what do I know. One of the things she said really stuck with me:

You know what happened next, because even if you don’t follow NASCAR, McDowell’s crash made just about every newscast. From our vantage point, which was only about 60 yards away, we watched him hit the SAFER barrier hard in turn 1, roll over on the roof, spin a couple times, then barrel roll down turn 2. The crowd quieted and all you could hear was the stomach-crunching sound of sheet metal hitting pavement. My heart stopped. The car finally came to a stop at the bottom of the track. We couldn’t see anything but some flames and a plume of smoke.Watching the car as it tumbled down the 24-degree banking, it was hard to reconcile everything I know about the safety designed into the cars and the track with what I was seeing. It wasn’t until we heard a cheer rise from the crowd that we knew he was OK.

A man standing nearby said, "I like watching this on TV, but I don’t like seeing it in person." He looked down at his young son. "It makes it too real." Even with all the emphasis NASCAR has placed on safety in recent years, everyone knows that all it takes is for a car to hit at precisely the wrong angle, or for a fifty-cent bolt to fail and the result could be catastrophic.

It always pisses me off when people who don't "get" NASCAR say something along the lines of "It's just a bunch of rednecks going in a circle, with watching rednecks waiting for a crash." It is true that the wrecks are part and parcel of the entertainment value - but for me there is a tension that this is a dangerous sport where people get killed, and the hope that no one gets hurt. Yeah, it's fun to watch the application of "the chrome horn" at a short track to bump someone out of the way, and the paybacks and endless recriminations. The soap opera aspect is part of the entertainment. But to say fans watch hoping for blood, well, that's just ignorant.

I didn't watch NASCAR for much of my life because it just wasn't available. The only coverage on network television was The Wide World of Sports showing a delayed broadcast of the Daytona 500. It wasn't until ESPN became a market force and started covering races live that the nation had the opportunity to watch NASCAR races other than in person. Since I live where was nothing but the Big Three networks, and no cable, I was SOL. It wasn't until satellite television became somewhat affordable that The Poor Farm got ESPN. It was a ground mounted fixed dish that pointed at G5 only, and ESPN was one of the channels it carried. It was put up and most of the major cable channels were placed on it just for this reason. I ended up getting a bigger dish that tracked across the sky, and finally dropped it when so many channels were disappearing from C-Band. Nowadays, it's DirecTv.

But, that is getting away from my point. NASCAR races were fun to watch, there were bad guys and good guys, and you had to follow fairly religiously to keep track of who was what this week. There were teams with money that ran well, and underdogs who just scraped by, trying to make a living. One of these was J.D. McDuffie. Another was Dave Marcis. They were Davids fighting the Goliaths of the day. Well, one day J.D.'s luck ran out.

1991. Budweiser at the Glen. It's the road course at Watkins Glen New York. J.D. was most likely killed instantly. The owners of the track put a chicane before the turn to slow the cars down, put in gravel traps, and better energy absorbing barriers. Benny Parsons was pretty eloquent in explaining why the race and their coverage had to continue.

I knew intellectually that this sort of thing was possible in racing, but it just didn't hit home until I'd actually seen it happen. Of course Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s death spurred further safety developments - the Safer Barrier and the Car of Tomorrow are children of his tragic death.

Just know that when these people "strap on the car," they can die, and they know it. Us fans know it too.

1 comment:

Sezme said...

I was watching how high the speeds were. I cannot even fathom driving 180 mph. You can't appreciate that speed watching it on television, that's for sure.