Monday, April 27, 2009

The Big One

To be clear, I don't like NASCAR. I don't get the whole fascination with spending an afternoon watching cars make left turns at high speeds (in NASCAR's defense, it's a lot more interesting than drag racing). I can appreciate some of the nuances, like watching people pass one another in a certain stretch through adept maneuvering and use of drafting; nonetheless, I find the biggest attraction of that kind of racing (as opposed to road-course or off-road racing) to be the anticipation/occurrence of a violent, large-scale accident involving multiple cars (dubbed by racing fans as "The Big One"). The latest "Big One" occurred on Sunday at Talladega, a track notorious for its brutal collisions. In a post-race interview, Carl Edwards (who's car collided with the retaining wall while airborne) bashed the use of the restrictor plates by NASCAR as a method of capping the top speed of the cars as a safety measure, later implying that it would take someone's death for NASCAR to revisit changing the use of restrictor plates.

I'm gonna go out on a limb here a little bit, so if you disagree/know more than I do, please speak up. My question is, how has the use of restrictor plates gone on this long without being more closely examined? I was only 11 when Dale Earnhardt Sr. died at Daytona in 2001, but to me at the time, he was NASCAR, along with Jeff Gordon, and looking back on it, I can't see why they didn't do away with the plates right then. Bobby Allison disagrees with Edwards, citing the fact that "the risk [inherent to driving with restrictor plates] is part of the attraction" and that drivers are very aware of the danger, but I think Allison's ability to voice that opinion has a lot to do with the fact that he survived his own crash at Talladega in 1987 without any major injuries. I don't know a great deal about the mechanics of a car, but knowing how much a car's performance can be enhanced by tweaking parts of it makes me wonder whether restrictor plates are a good idea. Theoretically, these are experienced racers who know how to handle fast cars: if they know that, they probably are aware of their own limitations, and racing without plates would be to their advantage because they can control what they do according to their experience. The use of plates, while decreasing speed, increases the level of danger by bunching the drivers together in packs; furthermore, racing in a pack punishes the smallest of mistakes with the possibility of spinning out and hitting other cars on the way.

If there are no restrictor plates, there's a better chance that that a car will not be as close to the pack when he screws up and therefore will only bring damage on himself if it happens. If you choose to go fast at one of the faster tracks (Talladega or Daytona), that's your choice and you make it while understanding the risk you take. NASCAR should not force everyone to be subjected to unnecessary peril - if they're smart, the drivers can "police themselves" by not making dumb decisions that could cost them their lives or someone else's.

Allison likened the risk associated with restrictor plates to being hit in the head and killed by a wayward shot at a hockey rink or a foul ball at a baseball stadium. He's half right: NASCAR, like baseball or hockey, could be considered a "sport" or "game" (although that too is debatable) because it involves some amount of skill. He's dead wrong about the other half (emphasis on dead): you have a slightly higher chance of being killed by a 3,000 lb. piece of twisted metal traveling at breakneck speed than a 9 oz. leather sphere, wouldn't ya say?

And 1
Donald Brashear's vicious hit on Blair Betts in the first period of Sunday's game was awesome, but maybe not worth the price. He's been suspended for five games for that hit and a sixth for a different incident, meaning he won't be available for the all-important Game 7 of the quarterfinals on Tuesday night in DC. So much for sending a message.

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