I must confess that I have never followed NASCAR all that closely and I wasn’t watching the race, although, like most people, I have seen the replays on the TV news. What I believe to be much of the problem might be summed up in a few lines from the 1990 movie, Days of Thunder. The lines I refer to are between crew chief Harry Hogge and the NASCAR rookie driver Cole Trickle.
Harry Hogge: Cole, you're wandering all over the track!
Cole Trickle: Yeah, well this son of a bitch just slammed into me.
Harry Hogge: No, no, he didn't slam you, he didn't bump you, he didn't nudge you... he “rubbed” you.
And rubbin, son, is racin'.
I think that Harry’s lines suggest (actually they state) that contact between cars is simply a part of the sport, although I know of no suggestion that the Coke Zero 400 incident was deliberately caused. However, one of the most popular NASCAR drivers of all time was Dale Earnhardt who was often referred to as “The Intimidator” due to his aggressive driving style and his practice of spinning out drivers when he felt it was necessary to gain an advantage.
Now it’s often been said that people go to NASCAR events for a few reasons: 1.) to see cars going around the tracks at the ragged edge of control; 2.) to be as close to the event as possible, especially at races on so-called “oval” tracks which vary from short tracks (one half mile or so) up to superspeedways (about two and a half miles long); and, unfortunately, 3.) to see crashes, because they add excitement to the event. I think this combination is a recipe for disaster. Let’s look at each of these ingredients….
I think it is true that those of us who are fans of any form of auto racing do expect to see drivers push themselves and their vehicles as hard as possible, which means that they are often just on the edge of control. That means that we expect to see an element of risk in racing. The character Niki Lauda in Rush, has the line “I accept every time I get in my car there is a 20% chance I could die, and I can live with it, but not 1% more.” By the way, the real Lauda was a three time Formula One champion (1975, 1977 & 1984) and the movie is, in part, about his 1976 racing season during which he had a major crash in a race at the Nürburgring (at that time a 14 mile road course) and which he had tried to get cancelled due to the lack of adequate safety provisions. He would go on to finish second place in the driver’s championship despite his horrific crash at the Nürburgring, missing two races due to his injuries from that crash and withdrawing from the final race of the season because of unsafe conditions.
The quoted line from the movie is not an authentic quote (as far as I can tell) and is almost certainly an exaggeration, but it is true that drivers in all forms of motorsport are aware of the fact that they are taking chances and at least some of them have been in the forefront of demanding changes to reduce the inherent dangers.
Yes, while most of my friends may not know it, I have been a fan of Formula One for a long time and, while I’ve never attended a race, I watch them as often as I can. Personally, I’ve never been a real fan of “speedway” racing, although I did go to a practice session at Indianapolis when I was in college and did enjoy that experience. And, yes, I acknowledge that like most racing fans I, too, have a fascination with watching a driver maintain control under highly challenging conditions and I have great respect for drivers who push themselves and their equipment to the limits. To me, that is what racing is all about, but let’s get back to our list….
If we accept that pushing to the limits of control (#1) is the basic nature of all racing, then any problems have to lie within #2 &/or #3. Item number two refers to the idea that fans want to be “close to the action.” This is a major concern. Formula One has taken significant measures (especially since the death of another three-time driving champion, Ayrton Senna, in 1994) to make both the cars and the tracks safer. What I perceive is that safer for drivers usually ends up being safer for fans. When there is a wreck (yes, they still do happen, but not as often as one might suspect) they are often rather spectacular as the cars are designed to shed parts exterior to the monocoque (where the driver sits), wheels are tethered to the vehicle so that they can’t fly around when they come off (which they do), runoff areas are provided so that cars can avoid smashing into the “wall,” chicanes have been introduced to break up some of the longest straights, guard rails seem to be much stronger and better placed than seems common in NASCAR, and fans are simply not allowed to be so close to the most dangerous areas of the tracks and they are not close behind so called “catch” fences, but are pushed back a bit, since distance means safety.
That is, I think, a problem NASCAR has. The fans usually sit so close to the racing surface that debris from wrecks not only rip the fences up, but the fences don’t stop the debris which then flies into the stands full of people. In the recent crash, the driver, Austin Dillon, walked away with a few bruises, but five fans suffered injuries (thankfully not major ones). In 2013, more than twenty fans were injured during a crash in an Xfinity Series race. As far as I’m concerned, fans being injured is unacceptable. Drivers shouldn’t have to die for “entertainment,” but at least they are (or should be) aware of the risks and have accepted them (see the Lauda quote above). Fans, on the other hand, should be protected to the greatest extent possible with seating at reasonably safe distances and “catch” fences which actually catch debris. Yes, some fans wouldn’t like these ideas, because they want to be “on top of the action,” but it seems that other wildly popular forms of racing have done a great deal more to protect fans, and I think NASCAR needs to do more as well, even if that means moving them back a bit and having safety fences which actually provide safety.
Of course, the biggest problem, as I see it, is the culture of violence which seems to be rewarded in NASCAR. In Formula One, even pretty minor “incidents” are investigated and penalties are assigned. While there are many possible infractions, to the best of my knowledge, EVERY form of contact or unsafe maneuver while on the track is (at least seems to be) investigated by a panel of experts (which always includes at least one, usually retired, driver) and penalties from “stop and go” penalties, to time added to the finishing time, to moving a driver back on the grid at the next race, to a variety of other penalties are assigned. Quoting from the FIA’s (the sanctioning body for Formula One) Sporting Regulations for 2015:
16.1 "Incident" means any occurrence or series of occurrences involving one
or more drivers, or any action by any driver, which is reported to the stewards
by the race director (or noted by the stewards and subsequently investigated) which :
. a) Necessitated the suspension of a race under Article 42.
. b) Constituted a breach of these Sporting Regulations or the Code.
. c) Caused a false start by one or more cars.
. d) Caused a collision.
. e) Forced a driver off the track.
. f) Illegitimately prevented a legitimate overtaking manoeuvre by a driver.
. g) Illegitimately impeded another driver during overtaking.
I have added some emphasis, but please note that causing a collision, forcing a driver off the track and preventing overtaking through improper means are all subject to penalties. That doesn’t mean that a driver has to just let anyone pass them, but there are rules for both “passer” and “passee” about how to “legitimately” get by someone else without creating excessive danger for either party.
Now it’s certainly true that there are major differences between open wheel racers (like Formula One) and “stock” cars (which are nowhere near what one could buy from a car dealer, they are just as specialized racing vehicles as are used in Formula One). Still, the idea that one driver purposely banging into another is just racing routine, seems like a bad idea to me unless the whole idea really IS to have crashes. If deliberately hitting another driver’s car isn’t slamming, bumping or nudging, it’s just rubbing and “rubbin’ is racin’” (see above), then we have an environment in which considers it “normal” to increase the inherent risks not just to the drivers, who are paid to take them and should be aware of them, but to the paying audience who are NOT. I think that something really needs to be done about this before more people are killed.
If all NASCAR has going for it is the “excitement” of crashing cars and throwing the wreckage at the fans, it needs to go the way of the Dodo. Of course, it’s interesting to note that NASCAR has taken to running some races every year on road courses (which use many of the safety features used in Formula One) and, while there are, of course, crashes, I haven’t been able to find one in which fans were injured and there seems to be somewhat less of the “rubbin’ is racin’” sort of environment in that situation.
Wouldn’t it be nice if NASCAR could figure out a way to bring the excitement of racing to its oval tracks without making fans take their lives in their hands to enjoy a race? Shouldn’t NASCAR have to finally get serious about the accidents which occur during their races, especially when there is a fair likelihood of them affecting fans? It seems to me that not doing so just seems to be admitting that the real appeal in their races is bloodlust, which I think is too bad and I don’t think is their intent.