Saturday’s near tragic last lap crash during the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Speedway has to be viewed as a warning sign. 28 or more people were injured in a crash that didn’t have to happen. When the crash occurred, there shouldn’t have been that much debris making it through the catch fence. It has to be seen as warning first about the consequences of blocking and second about complacency in safety. It should also point out how ridiculous the celebration of crashing is in NASCAR racing.
Saturday’s crash didn’t have to happen. It wasn’t the result of driver error nor was it the result of a mechanical or equipment failure. It was the result of a block, an intentional action that was thrown too late. Blocking is not racing. In most other forms of motor sport, blocking is not only frowned upon it’s penalized by the officials. In NASCAR, particularly on the restrictor plate tracks, it’s not only accepted but celebrated. Blocking is a dangerous maneuver that frequently causes crashes not an acceptable racing move. NASCAR needs to make it clear that blocking is not going to be accepted or tolerated by penalizing blocking including taking away a victory if that’s needed. In order to end the culture of superspeedway blocking, it must be made clear that drivers won’t be allowed to benefit from dangerous moves like blocking. It almost seems like drivers have become complacent about the consequences of their actions on the track; there seems to be a belief that because the cars and tracks are safer no one is going to get hurt if their move causes a crash. This may not be the case but it sure looks that way at times.
The cars and tracks may have become safer and drivers may not be getting hurt very often but this time the fans got hurt. That sense of complacency I just mentioned has to be broken. NASCAR, Daytona International Speedway, and others can argue that the catch fence worked as it was supposed to on Saturday but that doesn’t mean it worked good enough. We’ve seen over the years that cars are torn apart by these fences, when a car gets torn apart there is an increased threat to the safety of the driver. We’ve seen catch fences severely injure drivers and particularly in the case of IndyCar racing kill drivers. It also seems that as cars hit the fences with more and more force, more and more debris is making it through the fences to harm spectators.
“Give the engineers and scientists a budget and they’ll find a fix. They did it with the SAFER barrier…”
That’s what Dario Franchitti tweeted after Saturday’s crash. I believe that Saturday afternoon was a call to do exactly that. You might not be able to keep all debris from getting through a fence and unless you put fence completely over the track you’ll certainly never keep debris from going over the fence but I simply don’t believe that the fences can’t be improved upon. I’m not a scientist nor am I an engineer but I believe that the fences can be made safer for the competitors that make impact with them and for the spectators that sit on the other side of them. I don’t want to hear anything from the tracks or the sanctioning bodies about not having the money to work on this. Money is being spent left and right on entertainment and amenities at the tracks, it is time more money can be spent on safety. This is a problem that confronts not just NASCAR; I see it as a problem that the FIA, IndyCar, and NASCAR can take on in a joint effort.
In the meantime, there are several things that can be done. It appeared to me that the point of failure (yes, it was a failure – an engine was on the wrong side of the fence regardless of whether it ended up in the stands or not) in the fence at Daytona was the gate that led to the track, it was a weak point that allowed the fence to be breached and cause more damage to the race car. First, these gates can be removed from the catch fences and replaced with pedestrian bridges like Dover has or tunnels underneath the track like some tracks use for vehicle traffic to and from the infield. Second, it may be necessary to stop using the lower sections of seats close to the fence.
Finally NASCAR, its media partners, and fans need to stop celebrating crashes. Just as blocking isn’t racing, neither is crashing. We may not be seeing as many bad injuries from crashes as we used to, but that doesn’t mean the potential for it isn’t there. What do you see in commercials for NASCAR, for the races, and tracks, though? Crashes. There’s more footage of crashing than there is racing in many of these commercials. “The Big One” has become an expected part of superspeedway races and some fans don’t seem happy unless one happens. It almost reminds me of the Roman coliseum; the Christians being eaten by lions and the gladiators fighting to the death have been replaced by mechanical mayhem. We’ve become complacent as the sport has become safer. Sooner or later there will be a crash that results in serious injury or death and we’ll be snapped back to reality that motor sport is a dangerous and potentially deadly sport.