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Wheldon’s death returns safety issue to forefront for NASCAR

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The death of Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon has sparked safety discussions throughout motorsports just as NASCAR heads to one of the fastest tracks on its circuit.

With Wheldon’s death – he was killed in a 15-car accident Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway – comes intense scrutiny from a curious public that’s often entertained by the crashes and multiple car pileups. Just last weekend, the crowd at Charlotte Motor Speedway roared with approval when five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson wrecked hard into the wall.

Now NASCAR, which has made significant safety improvements in the 10 years since its last fatal accident, heads to Talladega Superspeedway. The 2.66-mile speedway is four lanes wide, has 33 degrees of banking in the turns and, like Daytona International Speedway, has long been noted as a place where “the big one” can happen in the blink of an eye.

“Talladega – it’s fast, it’s high-banked and we all know what we’re in for when we go there,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition, earlier this week.

NASCAR requires the use of horsepower-sapping restrictor plates at Daytona and Talladega in an effort to curb speeds that can hit 200 mph. Bill Elliott holds NASCAR’s all-time qualifying record with a lap of 212 mph in 1987, the same race in which Bobby Allison was nearly killed when his car flew into the fence.

Restrictor plates were mandated at Daytona and Talladega that season.

The two-car draft has evolved into the primary way drivers race at Daytona and Talladega. In an effort to curb the two-car tandems, NASCAR increased the size of the restrictor plate and ordered an adjustment to a valve on the cooling system.

The changes should make the cars as much as 5 mph faster, but the cooling system modification means the engines could overheat faster and force cars not to stay locked in together for too long. NASCAR has indicated it doesn’t want cars maintaining 200 mph for too long, and Johnson said it was up to the sanctioning body to keep an eye on the numbers and make sure the speed doesn’t get too high.

The faster the car, the easier it is to go airborne.

“There is a threshold for all the cars where they’re airborne, and as we go to Talladega with a larger restrictor plate, we get closer to that threshold,” Johnson said.