$100,000 bonus for lead changes scrutinized
AP Auto Racing Writer
TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) – A promotion that promises a $100,000 bonus if there are 100 lead changes at Talladega Superspeedway is being scrutinized in the wake of Dan Wheldon’s fatal accident.
Wheldon was killed in a 15-car accident last Sunday in the IndyCar season finale at Las Vegas. The two-time Indianapolis 500 winner was in that race chasing a $5 million prize that only Wheldon was eligible to win. The promotion was offered to any moonlighting driver who could win the race, and Wheldon qualified for it because he’d been out of a job all season.
Last month, Talladega officials offered $100,000 to the Sprint Cup drivers if there were 100 lead changes in Sunday’s race. If the number is hit, the driver who takes the lead the most times will win the bonus.
Because critics have wondered if Wheldon was “overmotivated” by the money, the Talladega promotion is now raising eyebrows.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s a reachable challenge,” Talladega chairman Grant Lynch said Saturday.
Lynch understands the timing is bad, but does not believe the promotion is outlandish. Two of the last three races at Talladega had a NASCAR-record 88 lead changes, and last year’s race had 87 lead changes.
Talladega also holds NASCAR records for leaders (29), fastest average race speed (188.354 mph) and fastest qualifying speed (212.809 mph).
A new two-car drafting system that developed last year and has taken off this season has led to all the lead changes. Two drivers hookup together, with one pushing the other until the engine on the trailing car gets too hot. The cars then swap spots in a system that looks a lot like a 500-mile game of leapfrog.
NASCAR has made two small rule changes designed to force the cars to swap spots more often, and Lynch said that was the sole reason for the promotion.
“Having 100 lead changes, it’s within the realm of thought and possibility,” Lynch said. “We wanted to have a goal that’s not just some fictitious unattainable goal.”
Promoters have to walk a fine-line in marketing their events and how they use the constant element of danger that surrounds auto racing. The fact is, fans love the door-to-door racing at Daytona and Talladega, two tracks that usually produce spectacular crashes.
The new tandem style of racing has eliminated the huge pack racing fans loved, and one mistake could wipe out a large portion of the field. Fans have been vocal through the first three superspeedway races this season that they prefer the old style.
Lynch said it always has been a challenge to not exploit wrecks in an effort to sell tickets.
“Historially, we have used our crash footage less than everybody in the sport has used it,” he said. “We know it’s there, everybody in the sport knows it’s there. We know this is not a place that’s (the drivers’) favorite race track. But what they do here, the TV numbers, the people in who see it in person, it sends chills down your spine like nothing else.”
WHELDON-DRIVERS: Juan Pablo Montoya is among the many NASCAR drivers urging people to calm down in the wake of Wheldon’s accident.
The days since he was killed have been filled with a barrage of second-guessing, everything from the speeds, to changes that can be made to the IndyCars, to the series racing on high-banked Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“When I was there, we used to get up to 256 mph and average over 240 mph – and it was OK,” said Montoya, winner of the 2000 Indianapolis 500. “It’s part of the deal. It’s part of what the sport brings. It’s exciting.”
But Montoya said changes can be made to the car that could separate the pack racing that played a role in the 15-car fiery accident on Sunday.
“They’ve just got to make it a little harder to drive,” Montoya said.
Making the cars harder to drive could be done with a reduction in downforce, which would force drivers to use more brake and not be able to hold it wide-open at all times. Danica Patrick alluded to that in the moments after Sunday’s race, saying too many drivers balk at lifting off the gas so as not to be viewed as a wimp.
Patrick said she lifted, and NASCAR points leader Carl Edwards shared that mentality.
“It is my belief that the biggest risk we face at these tracks is a car being on its side or on its top and getting hit by another car,” Edwards said. “I believe that if you listen to some people’s interviews after these wrecks, they are kind of proud to say that they kept their foot in it and stayed in the gas when there is a wreck.
“I believe that whole idea is terrible. I believe it is negligent and maybe even grossly negligent. If we can get rid of a little bit of that then I feel like this racing is about as safe as it can be.”
STILL SEARCHING: Mark Martin does not have any plans for next season, but said Saturday the only full schedule he’d be interested in racing is in the Trucks Series.
Martin is in the final year of his contract with Hendrick Motorsports, and Kasey Kahne has been picked to replace him next season. Martin would still like to race in the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series, but only on a limited basis.
“That is where my heart is at,” he said of his plans. “I don’t have anything, and it has been extremely quiet throughout the year and it is very late in the season, but there is still going to be something happening and sponsorship things that are going to happen. They are just going to happen later in the year.”
Martin drove part-time Cup schedules in 2007 and 2008, then returned to a full season the next year with Hendrick Motorsports. Tony Stewart would love to sign him to help Danica Patrick in her move to NASCAR next season. She’s scheduled to run about 10 races, and Martin could fill out the rest of the season.
That deal would depend on sponsorship, though, and Martin doesn’t think anything could be put together until November or December.
“What I do is sponsorship driven and I think you guys know that,” he said. “It is sponsorship driven, where I land and what I do. No news yet.”
STILL NO JINX: Jimmie Johnson thought it was ridiculous to think being on the cover of Sports Illustrated could lead to some sort of curse against the five-time defending NASCAR champion.
Then he crashed late in last week’s race at Charlotte and his championship chances suffered a severe setback.
Does he think now there might be something to the alleged SI jinx?
“I said before that race and I say after, because I was on the cover of that magazine, it didn’t make me crash,” Johnson said. “I was in a situation racing hard for a position and had one car close behind me (Kasey Kahne) and one tight on my outside (Ryan Newman), and I turned the car around.
“The magazine didn’t create the aerodynamic situation that took place when I crashed. We can joke about it and laugh and say, sure, the jinx continues. But I don’t believe that’s the case. Racing took place. I was in the car, so I’m responsible for what took place on Saturday night – not a magazine cover.”