Fan Safety An Issue For All Sports, Not Just NASCAR

Charlotte, NC (February 25, 2013) – By now, just about everyone has seen the footage of the final lap of the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytona where parts of Kyle Larson’s car wound up in the grandstand injuring several fans.

Simply stated, the scene was terrifying, a nightmare for all involved.

As is the case with almost any graphic, attention grabbing public event these days, ‘Social Media’ blew up with all manner of comment. Among the usual postings of well wishes and prayers to those who had been injured, there were also wide swings of emotional comment vilifying NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway for putting fans in harm’s way.

As someone who has worked as a professional motorsports reporter for 28 years, I can tell you NASCAR – and auto racing in general – has done much to insure the safety of the fans over the years. Incidents like those that occurred Saturday – where flying debris injures fans – are extremely rare at NASCAR sanctioned and local racetracks.

By comparison, more fans are routinely injured by wayward tee shots at golf tournaments. Ditto for fans who absorb the blow of a screaming line drive foul ball at all levels of baseball games. Meanwhile, how many times have you seen a basketball player obliterate the first three rows of fans when diving into the crowd to retrieve a loose ball?

Don’t get me wrong – this is in no way a comparison between the impact of any of those incidents can inflict on a fan versus the injuries a flying tire or piece of sheet metal off a race car cause. Nor is this meant to minimize Saturday’s events or somehow explain away the dynamics that contributed to this terrifying incident.

Anyone that knows me, or has followed my writing career, knows I am not a NASCAR apologist. Never have been, never will be.

But the reality is fans get injured at sporting events all the time. In an effort to get as close to the action as possible, fans spend additional money to sit in the prime seats right up on the action. They arrive hours ahead of time in an effort to crowd the ropes. They even sneak into areas that are restricted in an effort to get as close to the action as possible or glimpse at their ‘heroes.’

Certainly, everyone has an expectation of safety when attending a sporting event. Why wouldn’t we? After all, we take that same leap of faith in just about every other daily activity we participate in – right down to the food we eat and the water we drink.

The fact that fans attending Saturday’s race were injured or traumatized is extremely unfortunate and we wish all those affected by those events a speedy recovery and return to normalcy – whatever that is in today’s world where safety is by most standards a complete illusion regardless of how many precautions you take to insure it.

That said, in an effort to be proactive and assist in the process of helping to eliminate some of the factors that may have contributed to Saturday’s incident, I’d like to suggest the following –

First, all race track owners – not just those that host NASCAR events – need to reassess their grandstand seating. Given past accidents have proven you can’t construct a catch fence high enough to restrict all flying debris, reconfiguring seating closest to the track is the best option.

This is especially true at older facilities like Daytona. Constructed in 1958 and opened in 1959, fans sitting in the bottom rows at Daytona are a mere 10-12 feet from the racetrack. Additionally, that area is used as a major fan walkway to access and vacate the grandstand, so there are always people immediately next to the catchfence.

These seats – perhaps a full 20 rows of them – need to be removed creating for lack of a better term a ‘Safety Zone.’ Given Daytona no longer sells out its events, fans currently purchasing these seats could easily be relocated to other open, non-sold seats.

Second, ditch the restrictor plates on the racecars. In place for races at Daytona and Talladega since 1988, restrictor plates are designed to limit the amount of fuel to the engine. By slowing the cars down, the plates theoretically have made the races safer.

In reality, they have been a colossal failure.

In what can only be listed under the law of unintended consequences, the plates have forced the drivers to hold the car ‘wide open’ all the way around the racetrack to attain and maintain maximum speed. Without any throttle response, drivers virtually have no way to escape the dangerous pack racing situations that are the main byproduct of the restrictor plates.

The results have been countless ‘Big One’ style wrecks over the past two decades – including those we saw this past week in all three divisions that raced at Daytona.

Forget the fact the plates have turned events like Sunday’s Daytona 500 into giant snoozers – an endless single file drone with little or no passing to speak of until the final 20 laps – or that untold millions of dollars of pristine, hand-built racecars have been turned into scrap iron over the years.

This kind of racing has proven time and again to neither be exciting or safe.

It is way past time for NASCAR to abandon restrictor plate racing. It’s silly to build high cost engines that produce 800 to 900 horsepower only to restrict the fuel and air mixture choking them down to nearly half those horsepower numbers.

Doesn’t it make sense to just build a 450 to 500 horsepower engine to begin with?

Not only would it produce the desired reduced speeds, but would improve the competition significantly as the drivers would be able to pass at will and have a greater degree of control/maneuverability in ‘crisis’ situations.

Finally, the teams would save money twofold – once with reduced engine costs – and second not having to build new cars to replace those crushed by the ‘Big One’ in virtually every restrictor plate race NASCAR now contests.

These two adjustments certainly can’t guarantee events like Saturday’s accident at Daytona won’t happen again. If life teaches you anything, it’s that you can’t prepare for every situation.

However, incidents like those this past weekend provide opportunities to assess and adjust dangerous situations to the betterment of all. NASCAR needs to seize the moment to make these changes a reality. If they don’t, the comments from the Social Media howlers and knee-jerkers this weekend will be justified.

Last Call

As someone who has been critical of Danica Patrick in the past, I have to give her props for her performance over the course of this year’s Daytona ‘Speedweeks.’

Patrick has improved greatly since breaking into the NASCAR scene fulltime last year. Forget her landmark Daytona pole position run or her eighth-place finish in Sunday’s 500 – just one look at Patrick’s in-car camera shots reveal her hands are less busy than in the same shots from last year. There’s little indication of Patrick sawing on the wheel to maintain control as was constantly the case last season.

In NASCAR terms, it appears Patrick has learned how to hold a ‘pretty wheel.’

Now, if the media – especially the television folks at FOX – can start treating Patrick like the ‘regular’ driver she so longs to be, we’ll really have something. Sunday’s 500 race telecast left us wondering if Darrell Waltrip got an extra ‘spiff’ from FOX to constantly tell us how great Patrick was doing.

Like we couldn’t see that for ourselves.

Perhaps FOX should concentrate on consistently getting the right graphics up on the screen. Better yet, don’t go to break with 18 laps to go showing us the event on 1/12th the screen while offering up a Sprint, Coca-Cola and Toyota commercials on the rest.

Here’s hoping they wise up quickly. If we have to listen to Waltrip drone on about all-Danica all the time – and miss key elements of the events so FOX can satisfy its corporate benefactors – it’s going to be a long season trying to enjoy the races on television.

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