Thank God for the SAFER Barriers and Other Varied Thoughts
I bid you welcome gentle readers, and a cordial “Howdy” to our assigned reader of all things NASCAR today. It’s Tuesday afternoon as I pull up to the keyboard, all ready to reflect upon the race at Pocono last Sunday. Yes, there was a race at Pocono. The first thing I must say is that in the time that we were going to races there, they were still 500 miles in length and that race started at 12:10 sharp. In those days, drivers were already in their cars and as the last notes of the Anthem faded out, the command was given to start engines, hence the old joke about “Gentlemen, start your engines” being the last four words of the National Anthem. Someone was smarter back then. It takes a long time to run 500 miles. Today, the races there are only 400 miles, but now we have stages… a couple of competition cautions with points attached, which for some reason seem to necessitate many laps wasted under a yellow thrown for no reason other than to show the viewers at home a string of almost eternal commercials. Even with that reserved time, NBCSN somehow managed to miss a dramatic pass for the lead by Kevin Harvick who had come from starting back in 29th, though he had the fastest time in qualifying.
It was that sort of day most of the way through. Starting the race 10 minutes short of 3:00 in the afternoon was probably fine for the folks on the left coast, but for those of us here in the east, it meant supper was “fashionably late” at around 7:00. Just like in the Snickers ads, I get cranky when I’m hungry and am forced to go without my supper because a race ends so late. Keep it up and this cranky old lady may be joining a lot of my friends in that No-fan zone. This scribe doesn’t care about being fashionable; only having my meals in a timely fashion.
Reverting back to Harvick starting 29th, the NASCAR room of doom was in full kill-mode at Pocono. No less than 13 (THIRTEEN!) drivers were sent to the rear of the class along with some heavy point and monetary penalties and the beheading of a couple of car-chiefs. There were some very hefty names relegated to starting out the back door. OK, I confess, it was kind of fun to watch the best of them slice through the field like the proverbial hot knife through butter. It was rather like the old days, when the field was inverted and the best shall be last, behind all the rest. It took Harvick just 9 laps to crack the top-10. Allow me to reiterate… 13 cars is a full 1/3 of the field! Personally, I don’t really care about someone being 1/10,000th of a centimeter out of tolerance, and I doubt anyone reading this does either. We’d rather see the crew chiefs granted a little more leeway in operating in the grey areas. If one team gets too far ahead, the rest will work more diligently and soon catch up and even surpass. It keeps everyone on his toes and is far more enjoyable for the fans… those that are left, that is.
Once upon a time, there was a series known as IROC. (International Race of Champions) The theory was to have all cars identical. IROC no longer exists, for that very reason. When all cars are identical, it makes passing almost an impossibility. No passing equals boring races. RIP IROC. Really gentlemen, is that what we want for NASCAR? Keep heading down that dead-end road and the fate is inevitable.
We must revisit now, something that happened near the scheduled end of the race. Bubba Wallace, the young driver of the iconic #43, lost his brakes heading into Turn-1. Watching the slide through the grass, which has been likened to driving on ice, picking up speed as it went, then making the turn toward the wall and heading straight for it was terrifying. Bubba managed to get the wheels turned left enough to hit the wall flush with the passenger-side door. It looked to be a horrendous hit, and collective breaths were held until the window net finally came down. The impact was great enough to crack the concrete wall BEHIND the SAFER barrier! But… Bubba walked away, shaken and probably stirred as well, but alive!
Those that have known me for some time know that I’ve been an advocate for the SAFER barrier system for as long as it’s been on the drawing board. Dr. Dean Sicking and I are on a first-name basis and he has approved of every word I’ve written about SAFER barriers. In 2015, following the Daytona crash that broke both of Kyle Busch’s legs, I took my campaign public, presenting Google Maps of every track as we came to it on the schedule, with the assistance of my then partner, Jim Fitzgerald, who can actually get curved lines to look as though they were on purpose, delineating where each track had SAFER and where it did not. At that time, Pocono was one that didn’t have nearly enough coverage, but along with “most” others, (Yes IMS, I’m looking at you) has vastly improved the amount of the life-saving barriers. The walls there used to be “Boiler-plate.” Back then, a hit such as that one would have necessitated a long red-flag delay to repair the damage to the tin can that was Pocono. When your scribe saw that window net come down, my first words, uttered aloud to no one but JoJo were, “Thank God for the SAFER barrier!”
Kevin Harvick was a pleasure to watch come through the entire field twice from back to front… the second time thanks to a little help from a friend… teammate Aric Almirola, who hit him on pit road. Alas, between that and a lack of cooperation from his pit crew, he was only able to make it back to 4th place on the day. That worked out well for me, as no one in our little fantasy game here on Race Fans Forever had the other 3, so I’m now in first place… until after The Glen at least. Congratulations anyway to Kyle Busch, Daniel Suarez and Alex Bowman.
This was going to be what would no doubt have been a negative put-down of the surprise Brian France call-in to SiriusXM radio a short time back. Forget that. Brian said he's "locked and loaded." Let’s just leave it at that.
Instead, it occurred to me that because of a full schedule of "stuff", I neglected something very important after the race at Loudon. Your scribe made it clear that Loudon is not on my favorite track list… even near the bottom. BUT… credit where it's due. The following Wednesday night, relegated to a smoldering rerun, I watched the Modified race that had run there the previous Saturday. As I watched… and remembered my long ago youth, I realized that I was seeing what made me a life-long race fan. In the Northeast, they called them "stock cars" back in the 1950s, but I would later learn the difference. What I watched back then and loved so much were the forerunners of today's Modified cars.
As I watched, I felt that old fire rekindle and I wanted more, more, more!!! The Mods have for some reason fallen out of favor with the hierarchy of NASCAR. They look down on them as poor cousins. Their only TV coverage today is as I saw, days later, if at all. Mind you, I only knew a couple drivers in that field, but that didn't matter. What I was seeing was racing as I remember it. Intense! Thrilling! Multiple passes for the lead and for every other position behind the leader. The camera didn't rest; it was constantly moving to catch all the action.
In the end, this tells me gentle readers, that what I've told you all along is spot on. Racing is not dead nor will it die. However, that might not be true of NASCAR stock car racing. That race proved to me that what I knew and loved as a starry-eyed teen is not dead and gone. It is alive and well in the Whelen Modified Series.
And guess what! The elusive race broadcast has appeared on YouTube for your viewing pleasure, should you be so inclined.
Now that I’ve given you a full race to watch, it’s time now for our Classic Country Closeout. Today, we have a live concert by the great Merle Haggard, performing live at Church Street Station. It’s long, but the start time is noted on every song, so if time is short you can pick and choose. Above all, please enjoy!
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling.
It looks so good on you!