Drivers Livid After Latest Talladega Crash

SpeedReading

By DAVE MOODY

Barre/Montpelier (VT) Times-Argus

 

They’ve tried to make their point quietly, behind the scenes. They’ve done the testing, made the modifications, suggested possible solutions. They’ve held their breath, dodged the bullets, rode out “the big crash.”

Now, finally, they’ve had enough. They’re angry, and they’re willing to say so in public.

Winston Cup drivers generally do not speak harshly against NASCAR. With the possible exception of Tony Stewart, they toe the company line, thank the appropriate sponsors, and, when the occasion arises where a complaint is justified, they make it quietly, privately, behind closed doors.

But Sunday, on the final lap of the EA Sports 500, the backstretch at Talladega became a 190-mile per hour salvage yard. A total of 17 cars were reduced to scrap metal in a matter of seconds, and as the drivers slowly made their way back to the garage area, they stormed the bastions of NASCAR’s mobile office facility like the Norman hordes conquering Europe. One after another, they blasted NASCAR’s superspeedway rules package; a package they say guarantees crashes like the one Sunday, calling for changes in time for next year’s Daytona 500, and swearing never again to race under such dangerous conditions.

Voices were raised and fingers pointed, to the point where NASCAR Vice President for Corporate Communications Jim Hunter - a spinmeister unequalled outside of Washington, D.C. - described the post-race atmosphere as "animated.

“We don’t like this anymore than our drivers do,” said Hunter. "The overriding question is, ‘What are we going to do to prevent accidents like this…in the future?’ Thus far, we have been unable to come up with a solution, but we are going to figure this out, and we will figure it out before Daytona next year.”

It was an uncharacteristically blunt statement by a senior NASCAR official; an admission that while the problem may be obvious, the solution is not. A number of teams had tested new aerodynamic options at Talladega in August, but despite optimistic statements from many drivers that a solution had been found, no changes were made in time for last week’s race, other than to mandate the use of head-and-neck restraints. In short, NASCAR said it could not (or would not) prevent “the big crash” from happening. The best they could do was to try to keep everyone safe when it did.

That answer did not wash with anyone in the Winston Cup garage.

"They’ve got to fix it," said Sterling Marlin. "They had it fixed if they had done (what) they tried down here in the test. Eighty percent of us wanted it and 20 percent didn’t, so they went with the 20 percent. I guess they wanted to see us wreck."

"I hope they’re proud of themselves," said Ward Burton. "We came down here and tested. A lot of us learned something, but they didn’t learn anything. They must have been at a different test than we were at.

"If this is racing, they can have it,” he said. “I think everybody in the garage will say that. It’s ridiculous. If they want us to run (here), make the track twice as wide. Then maybe we’d have a place to pass. Right now, when it’s three wide, there’s nowhere to go.

“If (NASCAR officials) took a ride in my seat, they’d find a way to fix this kind of racing."

rrrr

While NASCAR’s superspeedway aero package remained unchanged last week, things were different inside the cockpit. The sanctioning body will now mandate the use of head-and-neck restraints in Winston Cup, Busch and Craftsman Truck Series events. Two devices -HANS and Hutchens - must now be used any time a driver is on the track during a NASCAR event.

It didn’t take long for someone to test the rule. In Thursday’s first practice session, Tony Stewart attempted to go onto the track without a device, and was promptly turned back by NASCAR officials. Stewart - who has long complained that the devices make him feel claustrophobic - had a heated confrontation with Winston Cup Competition Director Gary Nelson, before briefly changing back into his street clothes and refusing to take part in practice. Ultimately, Stewart donned a HANS device, but expressed his displeasure by instituting a media blackout for the remainder of the weekend. He refused to speak to reporters at any time, on any subject, and rumors in the NASCAR garage hinted the gag order might have come from team owner Joe Gibbs, in an effort to prevent the outspoken Stewart from getting himself into more hot water than he is already in.

rrrr

NASCAR’s coffers are a little fatter this week, after the sanctioning body handed out thousands of dollars in fines following Sunday's EA Sports 500 at Talladega. Tony Eury, Sr., crew chief for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s winning Budweiser Chevrolet, was fined $25,000 this week, after Earnhardt’s car was found to be 1/8-inch too short in post race inspections. Larry Carter, crew chief for Todd Bodine’s #66 Ford, was fined $10,000 and placed on probation until the end of the season for a fracas in Kevin Harvick’s pit area early in the race. Terry Spalding, team member on Jimmy Spencer’s #26 Ford, was fined $5,000 and
placed on indefinite suspension for selling credentials; a definite no-no in NASCAR-land.

Ten other post-race fines were handed down to various crewchiefs, for infractions ranging from illegal rear deck lids to undersized windshield clips.

rrrr

Ricky Craven’s team owner, Cal Wells, has apparently not given up on his second team, after all. Wells is reported to be negotiating with Hut Stricklin to bring both Stricklin and his Hills Brothers Coffee sponsorship to the now-inactive #96 team next season. The team fielded Fords for rookie Andy Houston this season, with sponsorship from McDonald’s, but a lack on on-track performance prompted the hamburger giant to scale-back its support, and the team was shut down.

“My total focus is getting back to running two cars,” said Wells this week. “The only thing we've got cooking is that Hills Brothers dea, and it looks like they're playing the field. I don't know if they'll pick us or not. I don't know if I'm competitive price-wise. I try to be."

The Hills Brothers sponsorship is said to be worth over $6 million, and while rival car owner Andy Petree has said he would any other team’s asking price, Wells is hoping his recent win with Craven might entice a sponsor to look his way.

"We were talking to Hills Brothers a couple of months ago about becoming an associate sponsor on the McDonald's car," Wells said. "At Dover, I thought it was all dead, but someone walked into my
trailer and said they wanted to talk about it again."

rrrr

Stricklin, meanwhile, set new standards for naivete’ this week, reacting with shock and surprise when car owner Junie Donlavey dumped him in favor of veteran Rick Mast.

“I really didn’t see this coming,” said Stricklin, despite the fact that he recently informed Donlavey that he will leave the #90 team at season’s end, taking Donlavey’s sponsor and crewchief with him. “The whole thing has really caught me off guard so bad. I am trying to figure out what I’m doing. It was all Junie’s decision, and I’m really not OK with it. We had a contract.”

Donlavey said Stricklin’s decision to leave the team left him with no other choice.

“If I went until the season is over (with Stricklin), then I’ve got no shot at another driver,” he said. “Now, if Rick and I can work good together, at least I can say, `We’ve got something’ to potential sponsors. Even if Hut won every race from now until the end of the year it still wouldn’t do me any good -- he’s gone. They took Hills Brothers, and they are still looking for a car to put it on. I don’t have nothing, and I needed to make a break to see what I could do.”

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Short (Track) Subjects…

…Despite Kevin Lepage’s 10’th place finish last weekend at Talladega, scuttlebutt in the Winston Cup garage area has Jeremy Mayfield as the leading candidate to drive Jim Smith’s #7 next season. Mayfield, recently released from the #12 Mobil One Ford, has reportedly put a deal together that will see Smith convert his operation over to Dodge next season, with technical assistance from Ray Evernham.

…Lance Snacks will sponsor Phoenix Racing and driver Jeff Purvis in a limited schedule of Winston Cup races next year. Purvis qualified an unsponsored Phoenix Racing Chevrolet for last weekend’s race at Talladega, finishing 42nd.

…Subway sandwich shops will reportedly sponsor the #77 Jasper Motorsports Ford and new driver Dave Blaney in 2002. Blaney replaces the departed Robert Pressley.

…Texas Motor Speedway's lawsuit against CART was settled last week for an undisclosed amount.

Last April’s “Firestone Firehawk 600” was canceled just two hours prior to the green flag two hours before it was to start after drivers complained of dizziness caused by the high G-forces produced by the track’s 24-degree banking. While terms of the settlement were not released, the speedway had been seeking the return of a $2.1 million sanction fee, plus millions of dollars in damages for promotional expenses and lost profits. TMS General Manager Eddie Gossage admitted earlier that the suit was for “millions and millions of dollars.”

“We have reached a favorable agreement and are glad to have this behind us,'' said Bruton Smith, chairman and CEO of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., owners of the Texas track. “We're very happy for this to be concluded.”