Safety advances since Dale Earnhardt’s death have made us forget the dangerous nature of auto racing and encourage us to act in dangerous and callous ways in our daily lives.
On May 13th, I saw something I had never seen—NASCAR safety officials at Kansas Speedway cutting the roof off a car to pull Aric Almirola out. I think the last time this happened in NASCAR’s top series was to extract Dale Earnhardt’s body from his wrecked car in 2001. At any moment, we’re just a lap away from seeing a driver die. I’ve seen too many cases where the cameras pull back, a sure sign something terrible is unfolding before our eyes. And yet we cheer and encourage risky behavior as if death is inconsequential.
Lessons from death
Earnhardt’s death shocked the world and led to a massive improvement in driver safety in NASCAR. NASCAR mandated a head and neck restraint be used and in 2005 required drivers use the HANS (Head and Neck Support; a shoulder harness with tethers attached to each side of the driver’s helmet). In 2002, NASCAR began using Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barriers at all its tracks. The barriers add flexible steel tubing and energy-absorbing foam blocks in front of the older concrete walls to lessen the shock of collisions with the wall. In 2013, NASCAR introduced the Generation 6 car design that featured an enlarged and reinforced driver cockpit. The design moved the driver closer to the center of the car and reinforced the doors with steel plates and foam to protect against side collisions. New rules limit when drivers can exit their cars and approach the track. NASCAR has reduced the number of officials standing on pit road and even the flag personnel now wear head protection.
Thanks to these changes, there has not been a NASCAR fatality since Earnhardt’s death. The number and severity of injuries is also much lower than before.
Wrecking as entertainment
Crowds cheer wrecks. Some people admit to coming to see wrecks. Others are happy to witness justice being served on the track as a driver gets even with another driver for past altercations. Or the fans are just expressing schadenfreude, pleased their nemesis has had a bad day. The fan reactions are to the carnage to the cars and ignore the potential carnage to the humans inside.
In the roughly ten years I’ve been following NASCAR, I have seen stunning sights. Cars barrel-rolling down the track. Vehicles airborne and thrown into the catch fences. Cars sliding on their roofs down the track. Violent collisions tearing the engine from the frame, engine block and car carcass sliding side by side in a shower of sparks. Flames engulfing the car.
And through it all, people are cheering.
Danger as spectacle has always drawn audiences. That’s what makes audiences hold their collective breaths while performers risk death on a high wire with no net below.
I know the feeling. In 2015, I was glued to the television watching the IndyCar race at Fontana. Someone was going to die. I was sure of it, but I couldn’t look away. IndyCar officials had mandated an aero package that encouraged pack racing, cars four and five wide at speeds well over 200 mph. This went on lap after lap, throughout the race, as none of the cars could break away from the rest. IndyCar insisted on running the car package over the complaints of the drivers and team owners. Drivers feared a repeat of the 2011 Las Vegas race when Dan Wheldon died in similar circumstances. But entertainment trumped safety.
Perhaps this would be okay if our attraction to danger stayed at the track. The drivers and promoters work to put on a show, which includes on-track banging, pit road fisticuffs, and wrecks. If we could view it all as therapy that it might be okay.
But we don’t leave our emotions behind when we exit the track or turn off the television. Just the opposite. We carry our aggression into our everyday lives. When driving, we emulate the behavior we see on track and assume the drivers’ charmed safety applies to us.
We’re mistaken, of course.
False sense of safety
No one died, or was even injured, in the IndyCar Fontana race. Aric Almirola is today walking about the track as his broken back heals. The near weekly spectacular wrecks in NASCAR seem to underscore the safety of auto sports. Events like Almirola’s wreck are noteworthy because of their rarity. The last NASCAR injury of significance was Kyle Busch’s 2015 wreck at Daytona that left him with a broken right leg and left foot. But he came back. He even won the championship the same year. So everything’s okay. Right?
Wrong. Consider these driver deaths in just the past five years: Bryan Clauson, Justin Wilson, Jules Bianchi, Kevin Ward, Jr. (struck on track and killed by Tony Stewart), Jason Leffler, Dan Wheldon. In the US alone, over 520 drivers have died in the past 25 years, mostly at smaller short tracks that have not implemented the safety lessons since Earnhardt’s death in 2001. NASCAR’s top level has seen 28 driver deaths over the course of its history, with Earnhardt being the last. And this says nothing about injuries, including hidden injuries like concussions. In the macho world of auto racing, drivers suck it up and soldier on when they’ve “had their bell rung.” Dale Earnhardt, Jr. made news when he sat out the final 12 races of 2016 because of recurring concussion symptoms. Perhaps no one else could have raised awareness about concussion dangers like Earnhardt, Jr. did.
NASCAR Is Not A Blood Sport
Auto sports are dangerous. Drivers risk death and injury every time they show up for work. NASCAR deserves credit for the safety improvements it has made. But fans are wrong to forget the inherent danger.
We are wrong when we think we can drive like NASCAR drivers and get away with it. We are not highly skilled and trained drivers. We are not performing on tracks surrounded with safety barriers. And we are not driving custom-built cars loaded with safety features. We are just poor, dumb sons of bitches in broken down jalopies driving like jackasses.
We are wrong to cheer wrecks and aggressive behavior by drivers. Bristol Motor Speedway bills itself as the Last Great Colosseum, but this is marketing hype. In the Roman Colosseum, gladiators fought to the death for entertainment.
We are advanced beyond that now. We do not seek our entertainment in blood sport.
Enjoy the spectacle of auto racing. But don’t forget that we are watching human lives streak past us each lap. Don’t carry emotions and false expectations with us as we take to the roads. And don’t allow our souls to become calloused as we watch drivers risk their lives for our entertainment.