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Don't Fear The Reaper: The Perils of "The Big One"

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Published: 15 Oct 2017

Wildcard. Madhouse. Russian Roulette.

These are some of the words that drivers in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will use to describe today's Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway (7 p.m., Premier Sports, MRN). But why do they fear it so much?

The nature of the racing has something to do with it. Talladega was built as a place where drivers could hold the throttle open 100% of the time – no brakes necessary.

When the facility opened in 1969, cars were not fast enough for the track design to cause problems. But as the technology evolved, the speeds became much more dangerous.

By 1987, drivers were travelling in excess of 340 km/h during races, and when they crashed, it was spectacular. NASCAR Hall of Fame member Bobby Allison flew up into the catchfence in the Spring race at Talladega that year, and had it not been for that catchfence, his car would have shot straight into the grandstands and killed dozens of spectators. NASCAR recognised that it was time for a change.

Their change came in the form of a restrictor plate: a small piece of metal with cut-out holes that went into the air intake port of the engine. The restrictor plate's purpose was to decrease the amount of air that went into the engine, which would in turn decrease the horsepower and speeds of cars at Talladega.

Their idea worked – the restrictor plate capped speeds around 320 km/h. But it also created a new kind of racing, and new problems with it.

The restrictor plates decreased the gap in performance between the fast and slow cars in the field, and increased the importance of running together with other cars as close as possible. In these "packs", the cars were at their fastest, because they were most aerodynamically efficient.

As the cars bunched together, the amount of reaction time went down too, and any crash that took place – especially near the front of the field – would be guaranteed to take out 15-20 cars.

This type of crash is known as "The Big One", and it has remained a part of the races at Talladega to this day. Part of the challenge in today's race will be to avoid being caught up in it.

On paper, that sounds like an easy task, but the racing at Talladega is so unpredictable that it's nearly impossible to create a perfect plan. Drivers spend more than three hours racing three-wide at over 300 kph, with no more than a meter in any direction between their car and another car or the wall.

That's before the actual racing is considered too. The goal is not just to move together in a group of 30 and ride around for 500 miles, but to race each other for the win. If the "rolling at speed" part of the equation wasn't challenging enough, the actual racing taking place adds to the difficulty.

Joey Logano, the defending winner of this race, explains how Talladega plays out from the driver's seat when you're the leader: "In the mirror you can see only a certain amount. You can see a fair amount maybe if you’re in the corner and the way the banking is you can see a couple rows back, but sometimes on the straightaway when they’re tucked up right on you, you can only see that car that’s right there in your mirror."

“You can’t see everything else that’s going on, so the spotter painting a picture is what I call it. Paint me a picture of what’s going on really helps me make the decisions on the race track as the leader and when you’re behind a car you’ve got to do both."

With this much taking place from behind the wheel, it shouldn't be a surprise to think that most of these crashes begin from the slightest of taps and nudges. Every move at these speeds becomes infinitely more extreme, and the margins for error shrink to miniscule proportions.

When "The Big One" finally strikes, the visuals become spectacular: it's not uncommon to see 2,000 kg of metal and bolts catapulted 20-30 ft. in the air like a paper airplane. Normally, it's only one car that does the flying, but the crash is amplified by the 20-30 cars that follow from behind and run straight into it, with nowhere to go to avoid it.

While most accidents are forgettable in NASCAR, those that are part of "The Big One" become so infamous that most fans can pair a driver and a year and remember exactly what happened.

Ryan Newman is an example of this, on multiple occasions. His 2003 crash in the Daytona 500 is remembered for the way his rear axle was shorn off his car and sauntered in the air, and six years later, he landed upside-down on top of Kevin Harvick in the Talladega fall race.

He knows that there may still be more to come.

"I know what could happen here, I've been on every part of it", Newman said. "I've had a car lying on top of me and finished third; I've landed on top of a car and not finished. I've had a little bit of everything happen to me. And I'm not saying I've had everything because something else will happen."

Of course, just because "The Big One" is difficult to avoid doesn't mean that drivers try to come up with a plan. Joe Gibbs Racing made three of their cars run in the back of the field in this race a year ago to avoid wrecking and advance to the Round of 8. They finished 28th, 29th and 30th, but the plan worked – though they took a great deal of criticism from the NASCAR world for racing to survive, not win.

However, that case was more the exception, not the rule. That's because "The Big One" can start anywhere from first to 31st in the field, and anywhere in between. It's impossible to know exactly where.

That's why Denny Hamlin, the 2016 Daytona 500 champion, thinks it's so tough to avoid. “There’s no right way to do it or wrong way to do it – that’s why so many drivers have been caught in wrecks at Talladega,” he said.

“No one has it figured out. And I don’t think that you can figure it out because there are so many moving parts, and there’s many other drivers out there that have their own agenda. Unless you cause the wreck yourself, you can’t control it."

Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson agrees. “So many strategies, like staying in front or staying in the back, can be used during the race. However, there’s no perfect strategy to run this race,” he said. “You just have to hope your car is in one piece at the end of it."

Despite all of this, "The Big One" has had two positive effects on NASCAR since restrictor-plate racing began in 1988. Many of the safety advances that have occurred since then come from research done on "The Big One". These include the addition of paved runoff areas in the infield (which decreases the amount of grass available for cars to dig into and launch themselves off of), and the addition of roof flaps (small pieces of metal that come up in the air when a car spins and act as reverse airplane wings to keep the car planted on the ground).

"The Big One" has also cleared the way for drivers on smaller teams to shine at Talladega because success here is more reliant on driver skill than it is the quality of their equipment. There have been cases where the big-money teams have crashed out early, and the race winners come from unlikely teams.

Notable examples of this include Brad Keselowski, who won his first career race with Phoenix Racing in 2009, and David Ragan, who took Front Row Motorsports to Victory Lane in 2013. Throughout Talladega's history, 11 drivers have won their first career race there, including Round of 12 driver Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who surprised the NASCAR world when he won the race here this past May.

With all these variables in play, it's not hard to understand why some drivers aren't fond of racing Talladega. When Ricky Stenhouse beat Kyle Busch to victory in the May race, Busch quipped that Talladega wasn't a "real race track". He has also said in prior seasons that he "hates racing" at Talladega and that "he'd rather be at home".

But come Sunday, the challenge for Busch and the other 39 drivers in the race will be the same: survive "The Big One" and find a way to win the race.

After all, there is an automatic berth in the Round of 8 waiting, should the winner of this race be in the playoffs. That should provide some incentive for drivers to hold their nose and dive in.

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