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.”