NBC’s Steve Letarte offers his take on Austin Dillon’s crash, restrictor-plate racing

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NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte offered his thoughts on Austin Dillon’s crash after last weekend’s race at Daytona International Speedway, restrictor-plate racing, safety and more with NASCAR Talk.

Here’s what Letarte said:

NT: What can be done in regards to what happened to Austin Dillon and with restrictor-plate racing?

Steve Letarte: Well, I think the first thing we have to really look at is the inherent danger of racing in general is something that has been around since the conception of “I’m going to try to beat you in a race.” We saw that essay that Ken Squier voiced over (on NBC) during the rain delay and the dangers of Daytona have existed since they were running land-speed records in the ‘30s up and down the beach. I’m not trying to diminish the scary accident at the end of Sunday night’s race. I think the important thing is to look at the work that NASCAR and the tracks have done to diminish the injuries.

As crew chiefs, we try to break the laws of physics every week. We try to go through the corner faster than that car wants to go through the corner. Well, unfortunately, when things go wrong, physics take over again. A 3,500-pound racecar traveling at 200 mph has a certain amount of energy in it. That energy is really underappreciated sometimes until we see them leave the ground and make contact with either the wall or the catch fence. That is the simple way to explain that I know in my heart that there is no guarantee for safety in racing. There are 43 guys that strap in every Sunday and they’re aware of that, whether they talk about it or not.

As a sport, we have an obligation to give them the safest playing field to put on the display of their talents as possible. We have to ask ourselves at what measures we’re willing to go do that. I think removing Talladega and Daytona from the schedule would be just unacceptable for a sport that has been grown around those types of racetracks, and we have legends that have been built at those tracks. I think we have to look at the positives of this issue first and see what we’ve done as a sport that made this crash safer. The reason we do that is to see what other steps we have to take.

NT: What could be changed before the next restrictor-plate race, which will be at Talladega Superspeedway in October?

Letarte: We need to not knee-jerk, not making major changes without understanding them. For every cause there is an effect. For every change, there are repercussions. NASCAR has done a very good job of weathering these storms over the distance of time on how to get these things handled. I think their somewhat methodical approach, while it can be frustrating and people would like to see more bells and whistles and alarms going off, they have made strides. Thank goodness we’re talking to Austin Dillon on the TODAY show today, and we see him doing interviews. That’s because of those methodical approaches. I think we need to continue down that road and not create an issue that we don’t currently have. Yes, we have issues, but we don’t want to create new ones trying to fix the ones we have.

NT: Dustin Long wrote that NASCAR should do away with green-white-checkered finishes for restrictor-plate races to reduce the possibility of a major crash and car going airborne at the end of a race. Knee-jerk reaction?

Letarte: I think from a competitor’s standpoint I wouldn’t have an issue eliminating the green-white-checkered as long as we know it going in. I was a part of that Jeff Gordon team that won (under caution ) at Talladega (April 2007). I was Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief when we lost to Jamie McMurray when the caution came out on the white flag lap at Talladega (Oct. 2013). Even the green-white-checkers don’t guarantee that we’re going to finish a race under green. It seems the fans that have paid good, hard-earned money to come out and watch the race feel like they want every opportunity to finish these races under green. That would be the question I pose.

The bigger item, and I think Austin Dillon touched on it, and I don’t know if this could be done for Talladega, but I do question that is it necessary to run 195 mph and have the same exciting race as we did at 175 mph? But I’ll follow that up with I’m not engineer or physicist. I don’t know if 20 mph keeps Austin Dillon’s car on the ground. We have seen Joey Logano flip at Dover. I’ve been to Saturday night Late Model races my entire life, and I have seen cars go upside down. I’ve seen drivers hurt at 100 mph racetracks. That’s why I’m a big proponent of looking at the safety aspects.

Here’s the problem you have, races are spectacular because everyone wants to win. That’s the same at my son’s go-kart race all the way up to what Austin Dillon did. Whatever rule package, whatever change you try to make, competition and egos take over and that’s what makes NASCAR and every form of racing special. It’s our responsibility as a series to make sure we make it as safe as possible.