Despite the obvious safety enhancements introduced to NASCAR racing in the first decade of the 21st century, the past race weekend at Talladega Superspeedway provided compelling testimony that there's still work to be done.

The packed front stretch grandstand for Sunday's Sprint Cup race bore witness to the popularity of Talladega, where mayhem is just a sudden twitch or minute mistake in judgment away. Nowhere is the sense of imminent danger so palpable.

On Sunday afternoon, danger invaded the grandstand when Carl Edwards' #9 Ford slammed into the catch fence in front of Section K during a frenetic finish in which Brad Keselowski took the chequered flag. Seven fans sustained injuries. Shrapnel from the wreck flew hard and fast enough to break the jaw of a woman sitting close to the fence.

It was a collision with Ryan Newman's Chevrolet that launched Edwards into the fence, but the rear wheels of Edwards' Ford already had risen above the pavement. Contact with Keselowski's Chevy in the final quarter-mile had turned Edwards's car and gotten the rear end airborne moments before Newman's car slammed into it.

NASCAR stock cars are equipped with roof flaps, aerodynamic devices designed to counteract a spinning car's tendency to act like a wing and fly off the pavement. The right-side flap is built to deploy when the spin approaches a critical angle of approximately 150 degrees, where the wing effect, or lift, becomes pronounced. The flap on the driver's side is supposed to pop up when the car spins 180 degrees - in other words, when the rear of the car is pointing straight down the racetrack, to prevent further lift if the car continues to spin.

That didn't happen Sunday afternoon. In the words of one racing engineer, the right flap appeared 'sticky' on deployment. Instead, the flaps popped up in reverse order, the left first and the right following a fraction of a second later, thus depriving the car of the full benefit of the roof flaps.

According to a consensus of engineers interviewed by Sporting News, Edwards' car likely would have settled and stayed out of the fence had Newman's car not been there to launch it. Nevertheless, a unique convergence of circumstances created a breathtaking crash that injured seven fans in the process.

Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition, discounted the possible effect of the roof flaps deploying in any particular order.

"What order they come up in really isn't significant at all," Pemberton said. "It just breaks the airflow over the car and reduces the lift. Any type of air disturbance can cause one or the other to happen. That's why they're there at two different angles. It's not an issue."

Newman, who studied engineering at Purdue, suggested that the transition to NASCAR's new racecar, which began in 2007, might have affected the way the roof flaps popped up.

"I would assume they just adapted their principles and the locations of the old style car to this new style car when it comes to the roof flaps and the cowl flaps and the things like that," said Newman, who emphasised the importance of keeping the cars on the pavement. "This car punches an entirely different type of hole in the air, and the bumpers are a good bit different on it."

Sprint Cup Series director John Darby, however, said NASCAR had incorporated larger flaps into the new racecar, and Ford aerodynamicist Bernie Marcus offered that there should be no fundamental difference in the deployment of roof flaps between the new car and the old one.

"During the development of the Car of Tomorrow, they did liftoff tests," Marcus said. "We got the data. We were involved in it. The liftoff data for the Car of Tomorrow is pretty darn close to the one of the old car. You could almost say it's the same.

"To my knowledge, they have had a least three wind-tunnel tests that were totally dedicated to the roof-flap issues, to make sure they deployed. I don't think you can point a finger here at NASCAR. I think they have done everything possible to make sure the flaps work and that everything is safe."

After the race, however, Edwards was in a finger-pointing mood. But his criticism dealt more with the larger issue of restrictor-plate racing. At Daytona and Talladega, NASCAR mandates restrictor plates that dramatically reduce the horsepower of Cup engines. The inevitable result is fast, white-knuckle racing in large packs, where one driver's mistake can wreck half the field.

"I don't know how I'd change this racing," Edwards said. "I know it's a spectacle for everybody and that's great and all, but it's not right to ask all these guys to come out and do this. What if the car goes up in the grandstands and kills 25 people? You know what I mean? At some point, they've got to say, 'Look, we've got to change this around a little bit.' "

Assuming the obvious, that NASCAR will continue to race at Talladega, why not seat the fans farther from the action and lessen the risk of serious injury? The catch fence at Talladega has seen vast improvement since Bobby Allison's 1987 wreck there, the crash responsible for the introduction of restrictor plates. Perhaps it's time to look at further safety enhancements to the fencing.

In the aftermath of Sunday's final wreck, Edwards provided a light moment when he climbed from his mangled car, still wearing his helmet and head-and-neck restraint, and ran to the finish line to complete the race.

That bit of comic relief was akin to a light-hearted whistle in a graveyard. The safety of fans and competitors alike is no laughing matter, and NASCAR must continue its commitment to keeping both out of harm's way - whatever the solutions may be.
by Reid Spencer/Sporting News


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