Lead change bonus scrutinized

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- 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."