My Brain on NASCAR: Talladega all about wreckin’, not racin’

The last lap of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega has made one burning question stand out in my mind: Are we race fans, or wreck fans?

This may be an unpopular opinion, but I feel that the races at Talladega are really starting to resemble a bad traffic accident on the Interstate. You don’t want to watch, but you just can’t seem to help yourself, and it’s really starting to get on my nerves.

The vast majority of the race was terrific. You don’t have to understand all the physics and science involved to enjoy restrictor plate racing. It is fascinating to watch, and spectators were treated to plenty of crafty moves, some unlikely drafting partners, and some really spectacular passes; so many, in fact, that the race set a new record for number of lead changes.

Nevertheless, as the final laps approached and most of the field was still running strong, an air of combined anticipation and perplexity hung over the venue. Talladega is known for always providing “the big one,” a huge chain-reaction accident that generally takes out about half the field and yields a few fights and plenty of choice words from drivers. It was after the race at Talladega last May, remember, that Tony Stewart wryly shared his disappointment at the low attrition rate.

“I’m upset that we didn’t crash more cars,” the reigning NSCS champion said convincingly. “That’s what we’re here for. I feel bad if I don’t spend at least $150,000 in torn-up race cars going back to the shop. We’ve definitely got to do a better job at that.”

Maybe it’s because I just watched “The Tudors” marathon or have read one too many Philippa Gregory novels, but I have come to feel that the atmosphere surrounding restrictor plate races has become almost medieval.

In Tudor England, those poor souls who were ratted out for saying something that might have been construed as disloyal to the crown – AKA treason – were the stars of a show that droves of people turned out to watch, with kids and picnic lunches in tow. It was a real spectacle. The day generally involved an ax, a basket and a foregone conclusion, but hey, the viewer market share was outstanding.

Ironically, Stewart was the catalyst that ultimately gave fans not only what they wanted to see, but actually expected to see, at Talladega. Coming into the last corner of the final lap, Stewart had taken the lead and was attempting to protect it when he drifted down the track. It wasn’t a significant move, but it was enough to set into motion a wreck that would take out 25 cars and send Stewart airborne, eventually landing on the hood of Kasey Kahne’s car. Matt Kenseth managed to avoid and mess and win the race.

It was terrifying. Fans loved it. The drivers, not so much.

“It was like “Days of Thunder” coming through the smoke and the grass, and I just kept it going straight,” said Greg Biffle. “That’s all I did, and once I was clear of all the stuff, I kept going to the start-finish line. But it was the craziest thing I’ve ever been involved in, in my life.”

Fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr., known for his skill at restrictor plate racing, described it as “bloodthirsty.”

“If this was how we raced every week, I’d find another job … I don’t even want to go to Daytona and Talladega next year, but I ain’t got much choice,” he said. “It that’s what people want, that’s ridiculous.”

I’m with Junior on this one. When did we as a nation embrace voyeurism at its worst, becoming excited at the prospect of potential damage to both man and machine? When did we become willing to actually PAY for it? How much farther are we willing to go?

Don’t answer that; I just don’t want to know.

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