It wasn’t so long ago that rain forced NASCAR to return to Talladega and race on Mother’s Day, and the circuit produced a rare caution-free race on the track known for chain-reaction crashes.
Asked to explain a crash-free race at Talladega, drivers speculated that no one wanted mom to have a bad day.
Back to the present, NASCAR is back at Talladangerous. When they race in Sunday’s Good Sam Club 500, they’ll race a week after racing’s latest tragedy.
One might think driver Dan Wheldon’s death in this past Sunday’s horrific crash in the Las Vegas Indy-car race might put Sunday’s field in Mother’s Day mode. Think again.
“I know that what we do here, especially at Talladega, is dangerous and we’re taking risks,” Jeff Gordon said, “but I still feel like we have a tremendously safe race car in our series here.
“What you saw there (in Wheldon’s crash), I’m not saying that we don’t have the potential of injuries, but it’s comparing apples to oranges.”
It’s only natural for the confluence of Wheldon’s death and NASCAR’s visit to Talladega to raise questions about safety and the risks drivers take, but this is NASCAR. Drivers race in fast-moving armored personnel carriers, not roofless missiles with exposed wheels.
Thanks to Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, they’ll wear helmet-restraining harnesses and hit a so-called “soft wall.”
That’s how Carl Edwards could go airborne, ride out his car’s disentegration on Talladega’s catch fence then comically jog across the finish line in 2009.
That’s how Elliott Sadler could go airborne, slide on his lid, roll five times then walk away in 2003.
That’s how Earnhardt and Bill Elliott could spin and roll in a mess of metal and flames in 1998, and Earnhardt walked away with no worse than a singed mustache and a surly mood.
Talladega can certainly produce mass crashes like the 15-car melee that led to Wheldon’s death. Talladega has produced accidents involving more than 20 cars.
But the cars cage their drivers in a highly reinforced environment, making it much less likely that NASCAR wrecks will result in serious injury.
That’s not to say it can’t happen, and it’s not hard to imagine a scenario.
“It’s my belief that the biggest risk we face at these tracks is a car being on its side or on its top and getting hit by another car,” said Edwards, points leader in this season’s Chase for the Championship.
There could be scenarios no one has imagined, and it sometimes takes a tragedy like Earnhardt’s to bring about the needed safety fixes. But the death of a legendary and beloved driver in a seemingly innocuous crash helped to make NASCAR safer, arguably safer than ever.
That’s why you will and should hear drivers like Edwards express condolences for the Wheldon family and pay proper sentiment toward safety, but you won’t and shouldn’t see them back off on Sunday.
“To me, it’s business as usual,” Gordon said. “You can’t sit there and think and worry as a race car driver about some of those less fortunate situations that can happen to you on the race track.
“You really just focus on doing your job, and hopefully keeping the car going straight will help you do that.”
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.