Monday, July 14, 2014

OPINION: The Importance of “The Right to Race”

Bill Meacham (far left) triggers his second wreck at
Darlington in 1991 (SOURCE: ESPN)
It was an unfortunate situation.  In a weekend that began with a blown left-rear tire and a crash in Friday’ practice, 2nd-place Joey Logano found himself in Loudon’s outside wall once more, his Ford done for the day.  Rolling away from the accident was 72-year-old Morgan Shepherd.  Seconds earlier, Shepherd had pulled his #33 Circle Sport entry to the inside to let Logano by, then seconds after that, lost control as the Penske car drove past.

In a situation like this, it’s easy to jump to conclusions.  Logano is one of the sport’s youngest talents driving for one of the best teams and was in contention for his third win of the season.  Shepherd, having just beaten his own record as the oldest driver to start a Cup Series race, was driving for an underfunded single-car team and was several laps down.  Several, including Logano, questioned whether Shepherd should have been on the track at all.

Thankfully, Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition, ruled otherwise.

“Morgan Shepherd has always been approved; he's been approved for decades,” said Pemberton. “Under our situation here, you take a physical at the beginning of the year, you pass your physical, you pass inspection with your car, you qualify for the race and you run the event. He met everything he needed to meet.”

And that’s all there is to it.

Sunday’s wreck wasn’t a commentary on age, but an ordinary racing accident.  It occurred between two drivers who both had to jump through the same hoops to get a Cup Series ride as well as a starting spot in Sunday’s field.  By qualifying, both had earned their right to race, and in exchange accepted the risk of an accident happening during the event.

However, this does not mean that NASCAR did not investigate Sunday’s accident.  History tells us that the “right to race” is not absolute, but is rather a privilege that can be revoked during the weekend or the race itself.  We’ve seen this many times in the form of suspensions and parked cars.  The most instructive of these occurred on April 7, 1991.

That day, 31-year-old Pineville, North Carolina driver Bill Meacham raced into infamy during the TranSouth 500 at Darlington.  A part-time racer since 1988, Meacham was making his third Cup Series start and his first at the old speedway.  He qualified 38th in the field of 40, driving an unsponsored #05 Oldsmobile entered by his family’s team.

On Lap 26 of the 367-lap race, Meacham slid up in Turn 4 and spun 6th-place Alan Kulwicki, sending the #7 Ford hard into the inside wall.  When the race restarted on Lap 31, Meacham lined up next to the leaders, then quickly plummeted through the field.  Entering Turn 3, he clipped Harry Gant, who was passing him to the outside.  The contact triggered a grinding four-car accident that sent Dale Jarrett head-on into the outside wall.

Immediately after the second wreck, Meacham was black-flagged, ending his third, and ultimately, final Cup start.

While Meacham’s afternoon was an example of a driver who was not yet prepared to tackle one of NASCAR’s most difficult tracks, Shepherd’s was a racing incident that occurred late in the event, when brake and handling issues begin to rear their ugly head.  It could have happened to anyone - and, in fact, did to rookie Justin Allgaier on Lap 299.

By recognizing this difference, NASCAR is not only respecting Shepherd’s ability, but is also telling future drivers that they, too, will be given the same benefit of the doubt.  This principle, which distinguishes NASCAR from other elite forms of motorsport, may well prove crucial to the sport’s survival as it continues to seek new talent.


Unknown said...

Here's the thing: the CircleSport/Hillman team usually runs around 30th, on par with the 36 car and the BK cars, and usually 3-4 laps down except maybe at Bristol or something where guys get lapped routinely. However, with Shepherd behind the wheel, the car was last among all cars multiple laps down (and this was before the pit fire) and he routinely was well off the pace all weekend, significantly more than any other car or even his teammate Cassill. This I do think is a product of Morgan's age, even if the accident wasn't, and it does beg the question of whether he should be out there, as much as it pains me to say it.

UnderdogFan89 said...

This was also due to the fact that the engine kept cutting off, which Shepherd says was partly engine trouble and partly his experience with EFI engines. he stalled on track during the first caution and lost a lap because of that, and there was one other time that he had to come in to the pits because of his engine (after the fire), in which he lost multiple laps (I think it was 5).

Unknown said...

The 33 doesn't run around 30th. The only time it's finished in the top 30, was at Dayonta. Once in a RCR car, once in a CSR car. It's usually one of the slowest, along with the 66/87 IVR car 9which is the car I root for with Joe). The highest it's finished as a CSR car outside of Daytona is 35th. Morgan's age had practically 0 to do with it. Inexperience with the new car maybe, but not age.

Also, it's not like Joey (and many other drivers) have cause wrecks or anything...