You Buy The Ticket, You Take The Risk
it's happened on more than one occasion. From Carl Edwards to Kyle Larson, the one constant of plate racing at Daytona and Talladega is the potential for cars to go airborne. When they do, the cars soar toward packed grandstands. Parts and pieces showered the grandstand and numerous fans were injured by flying debris. The wrecks overshadow whomever wins the race and leave fans and industry experts alike clamoring for a solution to the problem.
This isn't a new problem for NASCAR. Since Bobby Allison's car took flight in 1987 NASCAR has recognized the inherent danger of cars traveling in excess of 200mph on a high-banked oval. We've seen the introduction of restrictor plates, roof flaps, shark fins, and other technological changes to the car in an attempt to keep them on the ground. We've also seen changes in the walls and fencing of the tracks themselves in an effort to better contain the cars should they go out of control. The end result is a car and a racetrack that is measurably safer today than the one driven 25 years ago.
But safer doesn't necessarily mean safe. A commercial airliner can takeoff at as little as 150mph- well below the average speeds at most NASCAR tracks. The various aerodynamic changes generally keep a race car on the track but in an accident situation you're left with a vehicle traveling well over the minimum speed necessary to generate lift. Anyone feel like watching the cars go around the track at caution-flag speeds for 500 miles? Yeah- me neither. So slowing the cars down isn't going to provide the ultimate answer; accounting for their airborne possibility is.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize that sitting in the front row at a NASCAR race is potentially a bad idea. For those of you who haven't done so, there are a variety of reasons to avoid sitting there that have nothing to do with cars coming into the stands. It's difficult to see more than a small portion of the track. You come home covered in tire remnants thrown off by the cars throughout the race. In other words, there's a reason why unlike every other sport the highest priced tickets aren't down in front. NASCAR's front row is the equivalent of the nose-bleed section for its stick and ball counterparts, home of the blue-collar fans who love the fabric of the sport but cannot afford to purchase tickets elsewhere.
Does that mean they deserve less protection than financially more successful fans? Of course not. But that doesn't mean they don't know what they're getting in to either. People go to sporting events to be entertained but that doesn't mean it's free of any danger. Let's look at some other major sports and their fan safety records.
Baseball is an easy comparison. Despite a protective netting dozens of baseballs fly into the stands on a nightly basis. No industry-wide study exists (in part because baseball would prefer to ignore this particular issue) but even a casual fan knows the danger involved. A baseball thrown at 100mph forceably redirected by a wooden bat is going to create a huge amount of force. While many fans come to the park hoping to catch a foul ball or home run, the potential for injury is there on every pitch.
The Boston Red Sox conducted an internal study in the 1990s in response to a lawsuit filed against them by an injured patron. The study found that 36 to 53 individuals were injured as a result of foul balls over the course of an 81 game home schedule per season. In other words, an injury every other game on average. While no one died as a result of a foul ball during that period, a casual Google search will unearth a number of different serious injuries that resulted from an errant baseball. Boston defended itself successfully in that lawsuit by arguing, in effect, that the fan injured accepted the risk when sat down in the seat- i.e. a reasonable individual could see that there was some risk to sitting where he sat and he remained in that location anyway.
Another sport that has obvious danger to its fans is hockey. Unlike baseball, hockey's highest level (the NHL) has seen a fan fatality as a result of the on-ice action. 14 year old Brittanie Cecil died as a result of injuries sustained when a stray puck struck her in the head. A hockey puck is denser than a baseball and has the potential to travel at higher speeds off of a player's stick. The MCI Arena, home to the Washington Capitals, conducted a five year study which concluded that three to four fans per game on average were struck by a puck and of those individuals one on average required stitches or other serious medical attention. That means on average 41 individuals per year for this one team required medical attention as a result of the on-ice action.
One of the big suggestions post-Daytona has been to engage some form of super-strong plexiglass to protect the fans. Yet hockey again provides the clue that this may not be the answer. Wayne Gretzy's wife Janet (among others) was injured by broken plexiglass while watching his team play. There have been countless stories over the years of broken glass panels resulting in a stoppage of play and a shower of glass going into the stands. That's generally by a player being checked into the glass while traveling, at most, 10-20mph. Imagine the danger of those glass shards if they were propelled into the crowd at 200mph instead of 20mph? Imagine the breakdown of those materials over time as they are exposed to the elements, something prevented in the climate-controlled environments of a modern hockey arena.
So what can be done to better protect NASCAR's fans?
Eliminating the catch fencing isn't the answer. Dario Franchitti and others have been highly critical of that safety component after a pole connected to the fencing was “responsible” for the death of Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas. I put quotes on “responsible” however because to blame the catch fencing for his death ignores what would have happened had the fencing not been present. How safe would it have been for Dan's car, careening end over end at 150mph, to fly over the fence and into the surrounding areas? How safe would fans have been when Carl Edwards car took off at Talladega a few years back? The fencing did exactly as it was designed to do; return an airborne car to the track. The fence was never designed to be an impenetrable SAFER barrier that both kept the car on the track and protected the surrounding areas from any debris.
Frankly we should be praising the engineers who designed that fence at Daytona instead of lambasting them. Had Larson's car actually made it into the grandstand the carnage would have potentially ended racing as we know it. What sponsor in its right mind would want to spend advertising dollars in a sport that kills its fans en masse? Every sponsor would have had a team of lawyers on the phone before the sun set looking for a way out of their current agreement. Not to mention the fans themselves, many of whom would stay away from any future race regardless of the concerns at their particular track (I have a hard time picturing an airborne car at Martinsville, for example).
One step suggested in some corners is a second tier of fencing inside of the first. This would provide an extra layer of protection for those sitting near the track, a physical buffer that would prevent anyone from getting too close to the action. That buffer already exists at most high-speed tracks thanks to security guards positioned near the fence itself. A second fence only enhances the security of that space (and the security of the guards themselves). It also would provide a tangible public relations benefit, a physical manifestation of the changes NASCAR is making to protect its most important asset.
Beyond that, however, there isn't a whole lot that NASCAR can do in the near term to enhance fan safety. And that brings us back to the fact that risk is not something we can eliminate entirely from our lives. If you want to go to a race, you can choose where you sit. If you choose to sit at the start-finish line front row, there will always be some risk involved with that choice. It's the same risk a hockey fan accepts sitting behind the goalie. It's the same risk a baseball fan fan accepts sitting right behind the home dugout. Something bad can happen- and that something bad could be fatal.
Does NASCAR want that to happen? Of course not. But they cannot fix that any more than they can prevent the possibility of a fatal car crash on the way home from the race. Living life means accepting risk and nobody understands that fact quite as well as NASCAR fans. Don't believe me? Take a look at the frontstretch grandstands at the next restrictor plate race and try to find an open seat.