How Many More Times Do We Have to Do This?
I know I’m not alone when I say I watched the end of the 2020 Daytona 500 with a pit in my stomach.
My bet would be that most people did. Denny Hamlin’s victory celebration was subdued, Ryan Blaney was visibly shaken, even Jeff Gordon appeared to be holding back as the broadcast went off air. It was only natural; Ryan Newman’s car had flipped near the start finish line, flying into the air and crashing into the catch fence before coming down and colliding with oncoming traffic in a horrific accident. Throughout social media, people were asking for updates; and sharing shock at what they had just seen, something almost all of us had assumed had been for the worst.
Just the week prior, as I had geared up for that season, I found myself watching a lot of older race footage. I had never had a proper grounding on the history of the sport, and as someone who likes to both study history and watch racing, this was a no-brainer. And I was taken aback by how aggressively dangerous the sport was in the past versus what it was today, and thought it would be interesting to look back at just how far NASCAR had come.
After the 500, I no longer wanted to write that post. I just wanted to know that I hadn’t watched a man die on live television.
Thankfully, just days later, everyone who had watched that moment breathed a sigh of relief as Newman walked, on his own, out of the hospital hand-in-hand with his daughters. The evolution in safety in NASCAR was a chorus that was repeated race day after race day. Newman had an emotional return to Daytona where he thanked the track workers who saved his life. All was well.
At least, until the next 500. And until Fox started advertising it.
For a moment that caused such fear in so many, for the network to then turn around and show that as a marketing ploy was bizarre at best and disgusting at worst. But it could be argued that Fox was just showing what prospective fans could expect, regardless of whatever effect it would have on everyone who saw it.
I couldn’t think of that justification for Fox until after the 2021 500, but now it seems blatantly obvious. While it’s still morally reprehensible for Fox to air that replay as many times as they have (and probably will continue to do so), it really is just what racing at Daytona and Talladega has become. Most of the cars in the race will wreck, some will wreck in ways that will make you fear the worst, and in order to win, a driver will have to be willing to be the cause of that wreck.
The drivers themselves may continue to walk away, but they’re never far away from not being able to leave those wrecks under their own power. In Fox’s pre-race interview with Newman, he said that after looking at his helmet and car, had he been hit just a little differently he wouldn’t be here. And he added the qualifier about having to look at his helmet to come to that conclusion only because he himself has no memory of the event at all. Unfortunately, he’s not the only driver to completely forget things — after a massive crash at Pocono in 1988, Bobby Allison stated that he couldn’t remember the Daytona 500 win he claimed in front of his son Davey. Even the most popular driver in the sport, possibly ever, retired young because of a lingering problem with concussions throughout his career.
Concussions themselves are life-altering injuries, even if they don’t come with casts and bruises (though those sorts of accidents happen too), but potentially the more pressing safety issue doesn’t have to do with the drivers at all. Instead, just look at a part of the track not designed for contact that has played a part in at least three giant Daytona wrecks — the catch-fence.
Thankfully, Sunday’s wreck took place in a corner, and there weren’t many fans there anyway, but imagine that giant fireball engulfing the field just feet away from the grandstand. Or imagine that the catch fence breaks, or debris breaks through and strikes someone, which actually caused injuries in Austin Dillon’s famous Daytona crash. Hell, even future crashes in the corners at different tracks could injure photographers or other track workers nearby. Just because they don’t drive, does that mean they’re expendable?
I don’t know what you make different because I’m not an engineer, so my solutions wouldn’t be very efficient anyway. Maybe slow the cars down. Maybe make the tracks shorter so they can’t get that much air or have that forceful of an impact, or punish drivers who spark accidents at the front of packs or just eliminate pack racing entirely. I don’t know. But it is something to watch the sport praise the safety innovations made after the passing of Dale Earnhardt, and how there have been no deaths in the three top series since, only to watch this ‘wreck and win’ racing get played out on live television.
Safety is something that needs to be constantly evolving, not something that’s ever truly upgraded to a point where an organization can pat itself on the back as having done ‘enough’. Everything is good enough until it becomes clear it isn’t, but in a sport where cars are regularly going 190 miles per hour and even a minor malfunction can create a disaster, taking action after something happens comes at a price, something that NASCAR should have learned after 2001.
No motorsport will ever be completely safe. Every race fan and racer accepts this. But there has to be more done, especially when these crashes keep happening and the organizing body appears to be encouraging the behavior.
Horrible wrecks don’t need to be replayed to a television audience, and a driver being put into a coma in order to survive a wreck should be a wake-up call and not a call for applause. The finish line for innovations to minimize the damage of wrecks needs to be constantly moving, and never crossed, because everything else in the sport is constantly moving.
A death to a competitor or a fan or a track worker shouldn’t be the call to action. The call to action has been happening, again and again, race after race. And yet, the trend in NASCAR seems to be that if it’s not the worst possible outcome, it’s a reason to relax and let things play out.
It’s the same attitude NASCAR has had about safety since it’s earliest days as an organization, and that is nothing to be celebrated.