Drivers nervous about facing Talladega
Updated: Thursday April 19, 2001 10:10 PM
TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) -- Racing at nearly 200 mph surrounded by tons of heavy metal is a tough way to make a living. Doing it at the Talladega Superspeedway is even riskier.
On Sunday, 43 Winston Cup drivers will be taking that risk in the Talladega 500.
Aerodynamic changes NASCAR ordered last fall for its longest and fastest tracks, Talladega and Daytona International Speedway, have made races at those venues tense, spectacular and -- in the case of the Daytona 500 -- tragic.
"It's not necessarily something I look forward to," said Jeff Gordon, who won the Talladega race last spring under the old rules. "It's a very, very strenuous race."
Just how strenuous?
"Last time I was here, my eyeballs hurt," Gordon said. "When the race was over, my head hurt just because I was having to use my concentration level so much. It's just amazing what goes on here with 43 cars and the way we're stacked up."
He is among many drivers who don't like the rules changes that have bunched the cars even closer than they were before last fall. But he makes his car as safe as possible and goes racing.
"We have to race with the rules that we have," he said.
That's a frightening prospect, because spectacular, multiple-car accidents are commonplace at Daytona and Talladega. Three months ago, a 19-car crash in Daytona produced no serious injuries.
Less than an hour later, Dale Earnhardt, the sport's biggest star, was killed when he crashed into the wall on the final lap while running at the front of a tight pack.
Many drivers already were uneasy about the running at the two tracks. Earnhardt's death has made them even more aware of the danger of Talladega.
Because a restrictive device on the carburetors robs the cars of throttle response and added air foils create more downforce, it is nearly impossible to break away from even a small pack of cars.
"It's totally three- and four-wide all the time," points leader Dale Jarrett said of Talladega. "To ask 43 guys not to make any mistakes or get impatient in 500 miles is asking a whole lot."
He says the size of the pack means there's less chance those behind a spin or crash can avoid it.
Jeff Burton thinks about that, as did Richard Petty and the other stars 32 years ago when they refused to race at Talladega because they said the tires were dangerous. Unlike that Sunday in 1969, when NASCAR founder Bill France replaced the drivers with a field of unknowns who avoided mayhem, Burton and his brethren will be out there.
"That's our job and we're going to do it," he said. "But I have to admit I have a little more trouble sleeping the night before Talladega than I do at other races."
NASCAR mandated the restrictor plates at 2.5-mile Daytona and 2.66-mile Talladega after speeds went beyond 210 mph and Bobby Allison's car became airborne and nearly entered the grandstand here in 1987. But the racing became less exciting because there was little passing, particularly in recent years at Daytona.
To remedy that, NASCAR made two aerodynamic changes midway through last season: adding a metal lip to the top of the rear spoiler and a strip of metal -- like a taxicab sign -- across the top of the cars. That put the slingshot pass back into racing, allowing any car in the field to jump into the big hole in the air created by the car ahead and be virtually sucked up to the rear bumper.
"You just feel like the air grabs you and you fly up through there," said Daytona winner Michael Waltrip. "You can pick up 10 positions at a time if you pick the right hole."
The changes resulted in two of the greatest -- and scariest -- races in NASCAR history, as well as a feeling of trepidation that won't go away.
Elliott Sadler remembered the 2000 Daytona 500 as a boring race nobody liked.
"Everybody fussed about the level of competition, so NASCAR fixed it and really gave us a competition level that everybody is going to like," he said.
But the tradeoff -- particularly after the deaths at other tracks last season of NASCAR drivers Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper -- is considerable scrutiny for the racing circuit.
"Safety is still the No. 1 issue," said Sadler, echoing several drivers. "We'll just have to see what happens, play the cards we're dealt and just do the best we can with them."
In the aftermath of Earnhardt's death, many of the drivers have begun using or are experimenting with additional safety devices. A doctor who studied the autopsy pictures said Earnhardt was killed when his head whipped violently forward as his car hit a wall at 150 mph.
Gordon isn't taking any chances and will use the HANS (Head and Neck Support) device.
"You try to do anything you can to insure your safety in these cars," Gordon said. "The best safety device is to stay out of crashes. That's the most important and toughest thing at Talladega."