Sunday, May 1, 2005 Updated: May 5, 2:33 PM ET
When smoke clears, most OK with plates
By Rupen Fofaria Special to ESPN.com
Brian Vickers summed it up best.
"I have no idea what happened," he said, echoing the sentiment every other driver shared who was caught up in the lap 132 crash Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.
The 25-car wreck was the second biggest the NASCAR Series has had at the legendary 2.66-mile Alabama track, making it certain to be talked about for years to come.
"You don't spin out in the middle of a straightaway, so I don't know," said driver Mike Wallace, whose No. 4 car was at the center of the incident. "You have to make your own viewpoint there. I was looking out the front of the car and next thing I was looking at the grandstands. So, whether behind, side, up through the door or something like that, it's a shame."
Viewpoints were offered from just about every driver involved. But most shared the same opinion -- that's restrictor-plate racin'. It's not a new theory. In fact, it's recycled every year when, inevitably, several cars start pinball-ing off each other before coming to rest in the infield, creating a makeshift junkyard.
"That's superspeedway racing," driver Scott Riggs said.
"That's what you get here," Vickers added. "It was just smoke from where I could see it. You know, we checked up and tried to miss it and everyone just piled up. You know, I couldn't see anything. I have no idea how it started."
Is it merely a product of restrictor-plate racing, with its mash-the-pedal-to-the-ground brand of competition that puts cars inches away from one another at high speeds, where one centimeter of error can lead to 25 cars watching from the pits? Is that why driver errors, which at other tracks might be saved before they result in even one accident, lead to the "Big One" at Talladega and Daytona -- the circuit's two superspeedways where restrictor plates are used?
That's the most popular theory, of course. But there's a flip side for those who don't buy it completely.
That flip side? It could be that drivers who are used to running high speeds simply get impatient while in these packs, making errors that they make at any other racetrack when impatience strikes -- only when it happens at 'Dega the cars are running so close blame is difficult to assign, making it easier to say, "Well, that's just a product of restrictor-plate racing."
The doomed teams on Sunday said you can attribute it to whatever you want, but in the end you cannot escape that the issues are rooted in the environment created by restrictor-plate racing.
For every 200 miles the drivers make it unscathed through a restrictor-plate race, the law of averages says they're bound to collide soon, insiders agree.
Big crashes come with the territory at restrictor-plate tracks.
"It happens every time," Roush Racing crew chief Pat Tryson said. "Doesn't matter what [rules package] is in, it happens. You tell me."
Vickers is convinced it's a natural byproduct of the restrictor plates. No matter what the drivers do on the track, there's no getting around the fact that drivers aren't machines and they are not going to race perfectly for 500 miles.
"I thought everyone did a good job today," Vickers said. "At this time last year, I remember from lap 1 to the last lap, everybody was just out of control. This year, everybody was staying pretty calm -- you know, bumping a little bit, but not very much. And we [still] had the [second] biggest wreck we've ever had. I think it's just part of the racing."
NASCAR has implemented a number of measures trying to break up the big pack of cars which leads to large, multi-car accidents. They've put wickers on the roofs of the car, adjusted spoiler heights, decreased the amount of fuel the tanks hold so cars would have to pit more often and in smaller groups to create breaks in the packs.
But all of these measures have ultimately failed in acheiving the goal of eliminating the "Big One." With each of these measures the packs may get broken up for small periods of time, but always they end up back together before long.
"It's just something you have to come to accept," driver Joe Nemechek said.
And considering the alternative, he might be right. The reason the carburetor-covering, horsepower-sapping plates are in place at all is because the technology teams employ had cars running at about 220 mph. At that speed, the sanctioning body worried that a wreck could send a car flying over the guarding fence and into the grandstand carrying thousands of fans.
The plates are probably here to stay. Maybe, then, so are the giant wrecks. But if the worst thing we can say about that is that points contenders, such as Mark Martin and Sterling Marlin, take a hit in the standings -- well, that's a heck of a lot more palatable than serious driver or fan injury.
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.