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Crashes and Crowds—NASCAR Must Change

The car crash at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday sends a clear message. NASCAR must do some things differently to avoid an inevitable tragedy.

About three hours shy of the green flag for the Daytona 500, there is no report of any spectators dying in the horrific 10-car crash at Daytona International Speedway during the Nationwide Series race on Saturday.

Fingers crossed that it stays that way.

Chunks of debris flew into the grandstands on the front stretch and injured at least 28 people—some report as many as 33. Fourteen fans were taken to the hospital, two of whom had critical injuries—one of them life-threatening.

NASCAR representatives said it will look at the crash and see what it can learn from the incident to make the sport safer. That's what a sanctioning body is supposed to say. It's what track management is supposed to say.

But the gun NASCAR is using in its game of Russian Roulette on the high-banked tracks of Daytona and Talladega is filling up with bullets.

Everyone said the sport got lucky when Carl Edwards' car hit the catch fence at Talladega in 2009 and a modest amount of debris went through it. Seven fans were injured and two went to the hospital.

On Saturday, the debris wasn't modest.

Kyle Larson's car was missing its front end when it came to rest. At least one of his tires was in the grandstand.

And when a fan—and usually it doesn't stop at just one—gets hit with a tire at 140 mph or more, it's bad news, if not lethal.

Both Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona International Speedway are tracks where NASCAR artificially slows the cars down by putting restrictor plates over the air intake to limit the amount of power it can produce. It prevents NASCAR's Sprint Cup cars from breaking the 200 mph barrier, but it bunches up the cars to produce what is called "pack racing," in which the cars never really separate from each other. They race in a pack all day long. It's a great show on television.

And that's the problem.

Racing is a dangerous sport and it's an inherent risk the drivers accept. Dale Earnhardt knew he could die while racing, and he did in the 2001 Daytona 500. A pack race.

But fans of any sport don't sign up for that same risk. The small print on the back of their ticket alerts them to the dangers, but NASCAR must eliminate the pack racing that is responsible for such a good show and the inevitable "Big One" that occurs routinely on those tracks.

NASCAR is a big money operation that includes partnerships with some of the biggest and savviest corporations in America. Races could be much more entertaining if they were 100 miles shorter, as Dale Earnhardt Jr., has suggested. But NASCAR is interested in harvesting every egg from its golden goose. The longer races mean more ads can be sold for the television broadcast.

Ever wary of television and maintaining fan interest, NASCAR was concerned about close green flag finishes, which is why it created the green-white-checkered finish. It has almost wiped out races ending under the caution flag.

NASCAR was concerned about close championships among its stars, which is why it created the 10-man and eventually 12-man Chase for the Championship.

Now it must prove it's concerned about the safety of its fans.

The Carl Edwards wreck? That was a warning.

The Kyle Larson wreck? That's a full on kick in the head to make the series right.

Cars are purpose-built machines fully capable of racing at high speeds and navigating the turns on the track. As cars spread out because of tuning or driver skill, two or three cars racing each other at 220 mph doesn't present the same risk as 43 cars racing each other at 190 mph.

Speed is not the issue. The pack racing is the issue. The cars running inches apart from each other for 500 miles with no room for error without taking out a dozen cars in the process is the issue.

And if NASCAR doesn't eliminate the restrictor plate racing, if it doesn't free up the cars to gain some separation from each other, the tragedy that NASCAR avoided in 2009, and maybe again on Saturday, is imminent.

It will eventually see the Really Big One—the one that takes out a row of fans.

Sadly, that will make riveting television.

John Webb February 24, 2013 at 04:44 PM
Martin, you hit the nail right on the head. Restrictor plate racing and spec cars have taken the engineering to a different place than originally intended by NASCAR. You don't have Smokey building 5/8 cars, Maurice Petty breathing on the engines in a way that really upset NASCAR. I would like them going back to cars based on actual production cars with engines matching the manufacturer. NASCAR was a chance for the little guy to beat the big guys while building cars in their home garages. Today it is a corporation devoted to earning money and not highlighting the cars and the people who build and develop them.

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