ATLANTA -- Jim Hunter, NASCAR's voice of reason, walked to the Talladega (Ala.) Superspeeday podium Sunday afternoon, looked squarely at the sport of stock car racing without blinking, and told the truth.
The rules at Talladega and Daytona International Speedway create more havoc than they solve. The drivers know it, the car owners know it, the fans know it, and the sanctioning body, who knew it all along, finally accepted responsibility for its thinking. Then it promised changes.
Re-writing rules is nothing new for NASCAR. Publicly accepting its role for what's good and bad in the sport is another.
Last week, NASCAR became the only American sanctioning body for motor sports that mandated the use of a head-and-neck-restraint system, then it openly admitted faults in its own rules package.
Once criticized for being hesitant to change, NASCAR has re-established itself as a leader in the business. If criticism was warranted in the past, then praise is deserved today.
The current package at its two fastest raceways call for a restrictor plate on the engine to retard speed by 40 mph and a special package of aerodynamic flaps designed to make the cars more stable in traffic.
The result is a field of cars that don't have enough power to disperse the traffic. Races at Talladega and Daytona have become three-wide, 10-deep affairs where winners are too often the result of perfect timing and luck.
A 40-car traffic jam at 180 mph is good for television ratings, but bad for the drivers whose lives are at risk. As the EA Sports 500 on Sunday stormed to a memorable finish, the bosses at NASCAR braced for the inevitable the Big Wreck.
It came on the final lap when Bobby Hamilton bumped Bobby Labonte as they battled Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the lead. Labonte's car flipped on its roof and 17 other cars took turns bouncing off him and each other trying to miss the melee.
Tony Stewart, left, is helped into a Hutchens device before qualifying for Sunday's EA Sports 500 on Friday Oct. 19, 2001, in Talladega, Ala. Stewart missed the first 45 minutes of the morning practice at Talladega Superspeedway while he argued with NASCAR over mandatory use of head-and-neck restraints, adopted Wednesday as a response to a string of fatal accidents.
AP Photo/Phil Manson
''If this is racing, they can have it, and I think everybody in the garage area will say that,'' Ward Burton said. ''I knew we'd never make it to the start-finish line with two (laps) to go. If they take a ride in my seat, they'd find a way to fix this kind of racing.''
Before the first spark and the angry words that followed, NASCAR was committed to making a change.
''Even before the event ended with some of the near-misses, we realized we've got to do something,'' said Hunter, a NASCAR vice president. ''The racing here, under the right circumstances, is great racing, but maybe not under these current forms of restrictions.
''We don't like this anymore than our drivers do. We're going to figure it out, and we'll figure it out before Daytona (500) next year. I can assure you we won't face this type of racing at Daytona.''
The sanctioning body already has some answers. It conducted a 19-car test at Talladega on Aug. 27. Most left the raceway thinking the best solution was the removal of a strip along the top of the rear spoiler and an adjustment to the spoiler.
''I don't have any details or what we will do, but we are going to figure this out. And the teams are going to help us figure this out,'' Hunter said.
After all, the first step to getting help is admitting there's a problem.
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org
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