Monday, January 27, 2014

Fireball’s Death Helped Lead to Safety Advancements

Roberts' death helped lead to safety improvements
Glenn “Fireball” Roberts will be inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame on Wednesday.  Roberts was one of the first stars of NASCAR.  Running a partial schedule, he won 33 “premier series” races, including seven at Daytona and two in the Darlington Southern 500. 

But his death following a fiery 1964 crash – along with several other tragic racing accidents that year – had an even bigger impact on auto racing.  Those accidents claimed some of the top drivers of the day and led to a public outcry against the brutality of the racing, with some media outlets calling for an end to motorsports.  As a result, racing was finally forced to focus on improving the safety of the sport and introduced new regulations and safety advancements that may have saved the future of auto racing and certainly saved the lives of many other drivers.

The year started tragically with the death of Roberts’ close friend, Joe Weatherly, at Riverside in January.  Weatherly had always said his biggest fear was being trapped in a burning car and as a result, didn’t wear a shoulder belt or have his car equipped with a window net.  It’s thought his head banged against the steel plate in Riverside’s Turn Six when his car pounded the wall.  NASCAR moved quickly to mandate both shoulder belts and window net.  It was too late for Roberts, who hinted he might retire at the end of the season.

Roberts’ accident took place early in the running of the Charlotte 600, when he got caught up in a crash involving the cars of Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett,.  Roberts’ car flipped and caught fire.  He was trapped inside until Jarrett was finally able to pull him from the car, badly burned, but alive.

In ‘64 the World 600 was held the weekend prior to the Indy 500 and Bump Day activities were underway at Indianapolis Motor Speedway when word began to spread about Roberts’ crash.  Roberts was well-liked and respected by the Indy drivers, many of whom he had competed against him just a few weeks earlier in a USAC stock car race on the road course at Indianapolis Raceway Park.  One of the first to hear the news was Howard “Humpy” Wheeler, who was working at the Speedway as a Firestone’s PR rep.  He’d been called by a Ford executive and given the unenviable task of breaking the news to Smokey Yunick.  The owner of Daytona Beach’s’ “Best Damn Garage in Town,” Yunick had built the cars driven by Roberts to many of his NASCAR victories and earlier in the day had watched Bobby Johns hit the wall while trying to qualify his unique sidecar Indy design. 

Another affected by the news was Dave MacDonald, a young sports car driver making his first Indianapolis start.  Carroll Shelby, who had a knack for putting together unusual driver combinations, had paired MacDonald and Roberts in a Cobra for the 1963 12 Hours Sebring.  The car dropped out early with mechanical problems, but Roberts became something of a mentor for MacDonald when it came to stock cars.  Just a couple of months earlier, MacDonald had finished 10th in the Daytona 500, leading the non-NASCAR contingent that included A. J. Foyt, Dan Gurney, Johnny Rutherford and Parnelli Jones.

That evening on the phone, Sherry MacDonald told her husband that their children had written letters to Roberts.  MacDonald asked her not to the mail the letters, that he would try and deliver them in person after the Indy 500. 

Tragically, the letters were never delivered.  MacDonald was killed in another fiery accident along with Eddie Sachs the following weekend in the Indy 500.  Roberts would linger for more than a month, before catching phenomia and passing away on July 2.

In the aftermath of the accidents and deaths, Firestone and Goodyear put an emphasis on the application of rubberized fuel cells for race cars, a technology already being developed for helicopters seeing action in Viet Nam.  NASCAR began requiring flame proof uniforms and USAC set minimum weight standards for cars and maximum fuel loads.  Two more drivers would be killed testing before the terrible year was out, Jim Pardue in NASCAR and Bobby Marshman in an Indy car, but important steps were underway to improve driver safety.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

NASCAR’s Pointless Proposal

NASCAR's Brain Trust Seems Ready To Change Chase Again
So what’s the point behind NASCAR’s apparent decision to change (for the third time in 10 years) the way it selects a national champion?

According to Charlotte Observer, NASCAR’s favorite outlet for trial balloons, The Chase field will be expanded to 16 drivers this year (Sweet 16?).  Win a race and you’re in.  If 16 drivers don’t win races (likely), the remaining positions will be filled by those with the most points. 

After that, four drivers will be eliminated – based on points – after the third, sixth and ninth races of The Chase.  The national champ is the top-finishing driver from the Final Four (hmmm, where have I heard that before?) at Homestead.

Why?  What’s the point?

If the point is to create an exciting “game seven/Super Bowl “ for the final race of the year, this will probably do it.  Of course it will cheapen the championship beyond recognition.  If the 16th place driver, a driver without a win during the regular season, somehow makes it to the final and then is the highest finisher of the Final Four – and again, possibly without a win – does NASCAR really think people will view him as the Sprint Cup Champion?  He may have the Cup and the money, but he won’t be the champion.

If the point is to make for better or harder racing, that’s an insult to the drivers and teams.

If the point is to derail Jimmie Johnson, why not just add weight to Johnson’s car?  That’s the way they do it in sports car racing (now also controlled by NASCAR) and horse racing.  Keep adding weight until he can’t possibly win.

If the point is to provide three more opportunities for the type of shenanigans that played out at Richmond last year, this should do the trick.   It would have to be done with a little more flair and finesse than the ham-handed attempt by Clint Bowyer and Michael Waltrip Racing, but does anyone really think, with everything on the line x3, that type of manipulation won’t be tried again?

Not surprisingly, the Observer has been fairly supportive of NASCAR’s balloon.  But most of the comments in the chat rooms, racing forums and in response to articles about the change have been negative.  Mostly extremely negative.  But don’t think for a moment that will change NASCAR’s mind.  They have shown a repeated willingness to go against wishes of its core audience.  The casual fan, the ones NASCAR hopes to attract with the changes, could care less.  They’re not even aware a change is under consideration.  

Unfortunately, NASCAR isn’t the only organization affected by this pointless madness.  Formula One seems to be committed to making the last race of the season a “double points” event, with perhaps two other double points races added during the season.  Not surprisingly, Sebastian Vettel calls the idea “absurd.”  He’s right.

Even the National Football League is considering a point change.  Touchdowns would be worth an automatic seven points.  No more extra points.  But if a team wants to go for an added point (the old two-point conversion), that would be good for one point.  Total of eight.  If you go for it and miss, subtract one point.  Is nothing sacred? 

Since everyone seems to have an idea about how to make the NASCAR championship more exciting, how about this: make the final race of the year an Australian Pursuit Race.  You know, put the fastest cars at the back of the pack.  Whenever a car gets passed, it’s out of the race.  Last car running is NASCAR’s national champion.  The Australian pursuit race was a staple of short tracks in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and you still see them now and then.  They're certainly exciting.

So why not an Australian Pursuit Race for the NASCAR title?  They seem willing to try everything else.