For fans, the two Sprint Cup races held at Talladega Superspeedway each season are a celebration of NASCAR as most of them know and love it.
For the drivers who put on the oft-entertaining shows, not so much.
Talladega is the ultimate NASCAR experience for fans. The infield at the 2.66-miletrack that is NASCAR’s largest is a veritable zoo the night before any big race, and at Dega they all seem big. It throbs with action and excitement.
When race day arrives, fans at the venue and even on their couches at home scoot ever closer to the edges of their seats in anticipation of what is about to come: NASCAR’s version of a high-wire act without much of a net.
Fans love the three-wide racing action at high speeds that frequently occur after restarts and are fraught with danger. Drivers hate them.
Fans love the racing in packs that restrictor plates breed (the plates were put in place to slow cars down when average lap speeds began soaring past 210 miles per hour in the late 1980s). Many drivers wish the plates would go away, figuring they wouldn’t be so bunched up all the time then and the racing might actually be safer at faster overall speeds.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who suffered recurrence of a concussion during a 25-car wreck on the final lap of last year’s spring race at Talladega and later had to miss two Chase for the Sprint Cup championship races as a result, talked at length about the paradox back in 2008. This was immediately after Carl Edwards’ ill-timed block attempt of Brad Keselowski coming off Turn 4 on the final lap resulted in Edwards’ No. 99 Ford going airborne and nearly soaring into the grandstands.
“You’ve got to understand. For years, every time we came to Talladega we had a race like this ever since the plate got here (in 1988), and for years it was celebrated,” Earnhardt said then. “The fans celebrated it. The media celebrated it. The networks celebrated it, calling it ‘The Big One’ – just trying to attract attention, to bring peoples’ attention to the race.
“So there is a responsibility to the media and the networks and the governing body itself to come to their senses a little bit and think about the situation. But you can’t sit here today and said, ‘Wow. What I saw today was crazy.’ Because the networks and everybody have been celebrating this for years.”
Parts from Edwards’ car did make it through and over the catch fence, injuring two fans. That led to safety improvements at the track that have included a higher, stronger catch fence. Other safety efforts have been made throughout the sport through the years, including the installation of SAFER barriers at tracks, introduction of mandated use of the HANS helmet device and many to the race cars themselves.
They’ve all helped to some degree.
But the racing itself? It really hasn’t changed all that much from that Dega day in 2008, when Earnhardt also added: “As a driver, I think we’ve been saying this for years—that racing this way isn’t a whole lot of fun. It’s something we’ve got to do. Everybody’s got to go race when the green flag drops. But this is the way it’s been a long time…It’s been like this since the mid-1990s.”
Fans love wondering what is going to happen next in any race. While many race fans frequently contend that they don’t watch for the wrecks—and that no one who is a true race fan does—without the specter of The Big One possibly happening at any moment, a race quickly can seem boring in fans’ eyes and lose their interest in today’s must-have-now society.
Hence, the popularity of the double-file restart rule and the green-white-checkered overtime finishes. How many times have drivers or crew chiefs complained about the number of torn-up race cars these rules produce? Yet it’s impossible to deny that both have increased the excitement level of races across the board.
At Talladega, it’s nearly impossible for fans to relax because even when many drivers try to lay back and play it safe, there comes a time when they all need to make their move. Something is bound to happen. It’s just difficult sometimes to predict exactly when (but you can pretty much bet your bottom dollar that if nothing much has happened in the first 450 miles or so of this Sunday’s Aaron’s 499, something is about to happen over the last 49).
It’s hard for drivers to understand oftentimes what the fans are feeling and thinking. They don’t grasp how any race can seem boring—because they’re inside the cockpits of their race cars, going as fast as they can, lap after lap, sometimes working their tails off for dozens of laps at a time just to get past one car running in front of them, or trying to hold off one coming from behind.
Drivers don’t like wrecks. They especially don’t like them when they’re getting bounced around like a pinball at speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour, as can happen at Talladega.
But as long as everyone comes out relatively unscathed, fans love watching the highlights of a car tumbling end over end—or even nearly going into the grandstands. So do the television networks, as Earnhardt so aptly pointed out years ago.
Why else would they play the highlights of such harrowing events over and over and over again each time one of them occurs? And tracks themselves often feature wild wrecks as part of their commercial promotion of upcoming races.
That's the key, of course: that everyone emerges unharmed from these high-wire acts. Remember what happened in the Nationwide race at Daytona International Speedway just last February, when Kyle Larson’s car smashed into the catch fence and some parts soared into the crowd, injuring more than two dozen spectators?
It’s the blessing and the curse of a sport that can never be entirely safe—not with 3,400-pound stock cars running wide open, three-wide, and with a checkered flag within reach. God help us, you know we’ll all be watching closely to see what happens every time.
And the drivers? They can’t wait until it’s over and it’s time to move onto a more sane place to race.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes in this article were obtained first-hand.
You can follow Joe Menzer on Twitter @OneMenz