The Blame Game

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Based upon what I saw on Twitter this past weekend, this will probably not be a very popular post. Following the crash at the finish of the Nationwide race at Daytona on Saturday that saw a car fly into the catch fence and spew large chunks of debris into the stands, injuring at least thirty fans – there was pure outrage against NASCAR and racing bodies in general, that nothing had been done to improve the protective fencing at tracks.

While everyone on Twitter was quick to pile on NASCAR and their perceived inactions to prevent such an occurrence, I never really heard exactly where their negligence was. Those that know me know that I have no reason to defend NASCAR. They have somehow taken credit for safety innovations that were actually developed by CART, IndyCar and Formula One. But in this particular instance, I’m not sure that the finger of blame needs to be pointed at NASCAR.

I do not seek to stir the pot here. In fact, I would like to calm things down. Tony Stewart was quite eloquent in victory lane as he squelched any celebration and rightfully turned his attention to the fans that had certainly suffered serious injury…or worse. When I saw the crash, I thought there was no way that fatalities could be avoided. Miraculously, there were none.

Stewart said “We’ve always known, and since racing started, this is a dangerous sport. We assume that risk, but it’s hard when the fans get caught up in it.” Later on Twitter, I saw where someone was attributed with the quote “…the fans didn’t sign up for this”. While that sounds noble, technically it’s incorrect. Fans should know what they are getting into when they attend a motorsports event.

While the chances are slim that we as spectators might be injured while attending a race, history has proven to us that it certainly can happen – and does. Fluke accidents have always happened and they always will. One of the most freakish of accidents occurred during the 1931 Indianapolis 500. Wilbur Brink was a twelve-year old boy playing in his front yard on Georgetown Road on a Memorial Day afternoon. Defending 500 champion Billy Arnold was leading on Lap 162 when his rear axle broke. Arnold’s car went over the Turn Four wall, sending a loose wheel into the yard where the child was playing. Wilbur Brink was struck by the wheel and killed instantly.

The most tragic example was in 1955 at Le Mans. The motorsports community was still reeling from the death of Bill Vukovich just two weeks earlier. Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes struck the left-rear wheel of a slower car and became airborne. His car struck a mound meant to separate spectators from the racing area. His car tumbled into a spectator area, strewing parts everywhere. When it was all said and done, Levegh and eighty spectators were dead and one-hundred twenty were injured. That accident, combined with the Vukovich crash, prompted AAA to get out of the business of sanctioning motor racing.

I was in attendance at the IndyCar race at Charlotte in 1999, when a tire and suspension pieces from the car of Stan Wattles was struck by John Paul, Jr. and was sent flying over the catch fencing and into the stands. Three spectators were killed instantly and eight others were injured. I was sitting close to Turn One and had no idea that anything other than a crash had occurred, but it didn’t take long for word to travel throughout the stands what had happened. By the time Humpy Wheeler made the announcement that fans had been fatally injured and the race would not continue – we all knew what had happened and realized it could have just as easily happened to us.

Less than a year earlier at Michigan, the same thing happened in a CART race when Adrián Fernández slammed the wall and his wheel assembly landed in the stands, killing three spectators. The two incidents led both series to develop a wheel tethering system to try and minimize the chances of loose wheels becoming lethal projectiles.

The key word here is minimize. As Tony Stewart said, racing is a dangerous sport. It’s dangerous to participate in and is dangerous to attend. Racing bodies do what they can to learn from incidents and put new practices into place to make it safer, but this sport will never – repeat, never – be completely safe for drivers, crew members or spectators. Look on the back of every ticket – there is a stern warning that bad things can happen while in attendance. Most fans however, ignore it as smokers ignore warning labels on a pack of cigarettes – thinking they just have to put that on there for legal reasons and nothing would ever happen to me.

For this year’s Indianapolis 500, we have moved our tickets to Stand A on the outside of the track – not too far from where fans were burned by spraying methanol from Salt Walther’s car in 1973. Don’t think it didn’t cross my mind that what happened Saturday could easily happen to us in our new seats. But will that possibility keep me away? No. I’m willing to accept the risk – even though I’m painfully aware of it.

The only suggestion I have heard on a way to improve the present catch fencing system is some sort of smooth Plexiglas similar to a hockey rink. I am not an engineer, but I would think there is a vast difference between containing a hockey puck traveling a little over a hundred miles per hour and an entire car going more than twice that speed. I’m sure if that were presently a viable alternative, it would have already been put into place.

Everyone is saying that NASCAR should have been more proactive. Unfortunately, safety is a reactionary business. This isn’t just restricted to racing. It applies in aviation, medicine and structural design. Experts can do their best to predict what might happen, but there is always the unknown – the fluke accident. I saw one person criticizing ESPN announcers for calling this a fluke. Well, sometimes that is simply the case. As much as people like to use hindsight to criticize, sometimes the unpredictability of randomness takes control.

Occasionally, baseball fans are hit with a foul ball. Major League Baseball has done what it can to minimize the chances of it happening, with fencing and moving seats further back – but it still happens. In 2002, a teenage girl was struck in the temple by a hockey puck while attending an NHL game in Columbus, OH. It had been the first fan fatality in NHL history. Sometimes, rare und unfortunate things just happen.

Now am I suggesting that NASCAR or any other racing body take the approach that this happened once so it’ll never happen again? Absolutely not. If they do nothing to learn from this and fail to take preventive action to minimize the chances of it happening again, then shame on them.

Our society today demands that there must always be someone to blame. Someone has to be held accountable. I guess our ever-expanding legal system has created this environment (sorry Roy Hobbson). That would also account for the waste-of-time press conference held by NASCAR on Saturday night. People wanted immediate answers, but were sorely disappointed by the elusiveness of Joie Chitwood III of Daytona International Speedway and Steve O’Donnell from NASCAR in a press conference that lasted a total of seven minutes.. With the aplomb of a skilled politician, they danced around every question and essentially said nothing, which caused me to tweet – “Now just a minute! This is a press conference, The last thing I want to do is sit here and answer a lot of questions!”

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to find blame. Should Daytona be considered at fault for selling seats so close to the track? Was the fencing inadequate? What about NASCAR? Should they allow cars to run that fast so close together? Are their wheel tethers not strong enough? What about driver Regan Smith who initiated the incident for blocking Brad Keselowski? Should he be held accountable? Was Keselowski endangering everyone by attempting to pass so late in the race? Of course, the answer to most if not all of these absurd questions is a resounding “no”. But no one seems comfortable with that.

When Dan Wheldon was fatally injured at Las Vegas, the mainstream media wanted answers – immediately. Some NASCAR drivers were also rather pointed in their criticism of IndyCar. Although there were no fatalities on Saturday, that same mainstream media which is accustomed to covering Lindsay Lohan and the Kardashians has turned its collective attention to NASCAR. Reading their comments about racing has been laughable, but they and their readers want answers now. Sorry, but it isn’t that easy.

My heart goes out to the injured spectators and their friends and families. None of those injured, seriously thought they wouldn’t return home safely after this weekend. But knowing the history of spectator injuries at motorsports events and never allowing the thought to even enter your mind, is being a bit naïve. It’s extremely unfortunate that it happened, but miraculous that there were no fatalities. Everyone should take a step back and let cooler heads prevail. Everyone will learn something from this incident and move forward with new procedures in place. Let’s just try to cool the outrage and not be so quick to want to assign blame.

George Phillips

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12 Responses to “The Blame Game”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    While I believe that restricter plate racing lends itself to cars bunching up in packs, that this fact coupled with cars that are not exactly “aerodynamic” especially at 200 mph and in close proximity of each other causing them at times to swap ends and become airborne, I am not certain what else might be done to the catch fences at this point that would not further impede the ability to actually view the race. The only possible change that might help would be to move seats back and up away from the racing surface. Honestly, had that fence not been as robust as it is, there may have been a much different outcome. Lets keep in mind that we are talking about 3500 pound vehicles traveling at 200 mph.

  2. I’ve been to 15, maybe 20 races since the Fernandez incident, and with the exception of sitting down low in the Mid-Ohio grandstands along the backstretch last year (because Rick Mears was spotting there) it’s always been in row 30 or higher. I do this to reduce risk, and well, they are better seats than sitting right next to, and looking down the length of, a long cheese grater.

    I watched the Speed coverage Saturday night. Despite watching every second on F1 coverage for numerous years. I have no idea who Adam (or was it Alan) Alexander was, but Baghdad Bob thought he went a little over board in defense of NASCAR.

  3. Everyone in the auto racing business–from series executives to car designers, from track owners to car owners–should do their part to keep auto racing as safe as possible for drivers and spectators.

    But auto racing is a dangerous sport, always has been, always will be. Accidents will never be completely avoidable. And no one should be lulled into thinking that wrecking is just a part of the entertainment.

  4. Steve Jarzombek Says:

    I don’t think that I’m going out on a limb by asserting that the tech package that results in cars packed so tight in plate races, and competition rules (or lack thereof) that encourage drivers to hit the throttle in an attempt to push through a massive wreck rather than lift, are the primary causes of that accident. NASCAR has done a pretty good job in requiring the roof flaps and other aero modifications that kill lift in the event of a single car incident. But it cannot be denied that pack racing increases the risk of multiple cars getting together, which greatly increases the risk for a car getting airborne. The replay of the incident at Daytona shows that the #31 didn’t lift–which Allgaier admitted in his post-race interview–and pushed the #2 into the #32, and then the #31 hit the #32.

    Many if not most plate races “feature” at least one “big one” in which a car goes airborne. Again, I’m not going out on a limb by asserting that it was well established that a car will likely to go airborne in a cluster event, and airborne cars headed into the fence will hit poles and/or shred fences and send debris into the crowd. There’s thus a low but finite risk that this will happen at any event. The questions are whether or not NASCAR and the fans think that risk remains acceptable–and whether changes to reduce that risk would diminish the entertainment value unacceptably.

  5. Regarding the train called ‘NASCAR.’ ……………

    There are always instances and examples cited where a certain amount of data and or ‘kill/injury rate’ must be accumulated FIRST before any powers to be decide to take remedial action which justifies THEIR spending of THEIR money …… to cite but a few examples …… stop signs, traffic lights ….. Examples we have all witnessed slowly and sometimes not being implemented ……

    And the clock keeps ticking seemingly without remedial action being taken while the injuries, long term suffering from those injuries and deaths (as well as the suffering of family members and relatives who have had relatives injured or die) must accumulate in order to justify money being spent…..

    $$$$$$ appears to be the factor…. Though ‘officials’ may publicly state otherwise.

    Is it less expensive to continue with the status quo and with the tried and true propaganda received from ‘officials’ ?

    Is it less expensive to endure the cost of impending lawsuits and the resultant negative publicity?

    Is it less costly to be innovative and implement the iniatives that technology has to offer ……. And be in the forefront of ‘safety’?

  6. billytheskink Says:

    It should always be noted that modern restrictor plate “pack” racing in NASCAR came about in large part because of Bobby Allison’s 1987 wreck at Talladega, where his unrestricted (and unpacked) car obliterated dozens of feet of catch fencing.
    Spread out stock cars at 200+ MPH are a flight risk just as packed stock cars at 180 MPH.

    It would seem that NASCAR is in a bit of a catch 22 with Daytona and Talladega. Improving safety at these tracks may require a combination of improved fencing, reduced speeds, breaking up the pack, and perhaps even reducing banking.

  7. Hoo, boy. This is gonna be a long comment. I apologize in advance for my hogging the pixels.

    I want to put this right up front here: I am not going to bang away at NASCAR, Daytona or any of the tracks for the design of the fences. To my mind, the existing fences do an admirable job of keeping dangerous stuff away from the crowd while still doing their secondary task: letting people see the action. A lot of folks have said that racetracks should have a hockey rink-style “plexiglass” barrier to keep parts, wheels, cars and the like out of the grandstands. I’m here to tell you that it’s possible that such a thing could be developed one day, but it will be at an insane cost. After all, a 1500 lb. racecar traveling 200 MPH carries 12,000 times the kinetic energy that a half pound hockey puck traveling 100 MPH (3,000 times the weight and the speed factor is actually times 4, because speed is squared in the equation). So, the plexiglass would have to be 12,000 times as strong (and you can double all this again for the stock car scenario, since the cars are more than twice as heavy) while still being largely transparent, and I haven’t even touched the fact that broken racecars have jagged bits that would create stress risers in the plexiglass, and on and on, and shut up, nerdboy, is what you’re all saying. Anyway, the fences are what we’ve got now and what we’re probably going to have for the foreseeable future. Secondary fences, moving the seats back…those are also potential solutions, but also carry huge costs (adding a second fence behind the existing one, plus probably ripping out seats to make room for the second fence) and reduced revenues to the tracks (getting rid of the first few rows of seats decreases the number of tickets sold). That’s a tough sell, even with what’s at stake here.

    OK, if we’re years away from having better accident containment, where does that leave us? Are we good enough where we sit right now? Saturday’s accident, like the half dozen restrictor plate accidents that I can think of in the course of the last 3-4 years where we had a car get into the fence, those all tell me that it’s not a matter of “if” we’ll see an accident where we have multiple cars get airborne in the same accident, it’s a matter of “when”. Roof flaps do a great job of keeping a singular spinning stock car on the ground by vastly reducing the resulting lift, but once that spinning car is hit by another car (increasing the speed of the spinning car, which increases the chance of takeoff, while the front bumper of the impacting car likely exerts an upward force to the spinning car), the spinning car is likely to take off. That’s what we see at plate tracks all the time during the “Big One(s)”. Were we ever to get two cars airborne (not unlikely, since the apparent current trend during plate wrecks is to bury the throttle and try to push through) and then they both converge on roughly the same point of the fence…that makes me shudder to think about. The first car would knock down the fence (see Carl Edwards’ 2009 wreck at Talladega or Kyle Larson’s wreck on Saturday) and the second car would sail right through the hole. Had this happened on Saturday, what would we be talking about today?

    Racing is dangerous. Nobody is going to dispute that. It’s a matter of reducing the amount of risk that the sport (yes, the sport as a whole) is exposed to. What can be done? Can something be done for cheaper than all-new fencing systems? For starts, NASCAR has been wildly negligent about their attitude about blocking over the years, at plate tracks, especially (I first opined about this fully six years ago in my old blog, followed again two years later after the Edwards wreck at Talladega). Blocking is not just tolerated, it’s borderline encouraged under the guise of “have at it, boys!” Anything goes out there. A guy pulls a bump and run on you? You’re gonna be called a Nancy Boy, unless you strike back! Stuff a guy into the fence because he got his front bumper even with your rear wheel? Do it! Weaving down the straights and through the tri-oval to make your car 20 feet wide? Sure! Cutting up or down on a guy, even though he’s totally alongside you? Absolutely! Never mind about the crazy risks this introduces, or about the fact that these actions reduce passing and ruin the racing (compelling reasons to crack down on blocking in and of themselves)! You’ve got a position to protect! Screw everybody else (including the fans)! Meanwhile, NASCAR has led everybody to believe that they’re entitled to a wheel-to-wheel finish in every race by the introduction of the Green-White-Checkered finish, which bunches the field up with a few laps to go far more often than would organically happen during a season, while encouraging people to pull crazy stuff in the middle of huge, dense packs of cars. Throw all of this stuff into a blender, and you get an insane amount of risk. Every car arriving on the scene of a spinning car or an accident at near-racing speed represents a spike in risk. It is on every sanctioning body to review and reduce that risk.

    Going back to my earlier scenario, what does happen if we get two airborne cars in the same section of fence? There is no question about it: a bunch of dead spectators. With a dozen or more aggrieved families, do we really think that a group of talented prosecutors won’t step in and try to liberate a sum from NASCAR and the tracks in upwards of 9-figures? They will, after all, be able to claim that: 1. NASCAR, the tracks and all racing sanctioning bodies are understating the risks by just putting a blurb on the back of the tickets, when they could/should be making everybody through the gates sign a waiver, which still may or may not hold up to a jury trial of this magnitude, and 2. NASCAR can’t claim they couldn’t foresee such a thing, due to their long, sordid history of plate track wrecks. And if such a wreck causes an already automobile-averse member of Congress to decide that racing is not just a waste of money and natural resources, but also poses a threat to public health, who is to say that we won’t wind up with some grand dog-and-pony show hearing where the entire sport (NASCAR, IndyCar, sports cars, NHRA, local short tracks) is put in jeopardy? What then? Was just saying “well, racing is dangerous” while not bothering to reduce all reasonable sources of risk to a more acceptable level worth it?

    • Well stated……..

      The first track (corporation) owner to initiate improved safety ‘fence’ measures wins the coverted award for thinking out of the box.

      And is due all the positive spin publicity which place the onus on other tracks to follow their lead.

      Now, back to sleep until the next incident ?

  8. I put no fault on NASCAR for the current state of catch fencing or the construction of their cars. I do however put a ton of fault on them for their officially declared “have at it boys” attitude toward blocking and racing in general. When Kez and Edwards got together a few years ago and Edwards went into the fence I thought about how they dodged a Le Mans ’55 bullet because if any major chunk of that car ended up in the stands, they would have a mass casualty incident liable to change auto racing as we know it forever. There is big difference between the inherent risk of watching a race live and an officially endorsed attitude that causes drivers to drive in such a way that that causes these accidents without any comprehension of the possible consequences.

  9. Savage Henry Says:

    I agree with a lot of what The Speedgeek said. The problem is not that freak accidents sometimes happen, you can’t predict or prevent them. My problem is that NASCAR has set up the rulebook to pretty much guarantee that there is going to be massive carnage at the end of every restrictor plate race. I’m sure Tony Stewart got in hot water with his comments about running figure-8s or having cars running in opposite directions, but it makes it clear that the drivers know that big crashes are considered to be part of the show by NASCAR and the fans. In the event of a lawsuit, NASCAR isn’t going to be able to claim that nobody could have envisioned the tragedy happening. What happened this week was a warning, just like the Carl Edwards crash was a couple years ago.

    “The big one” hasn’t actually happened yet. Eventually fans are going to get killed in one of these big wrecks. After the lawsuits, Congressional inquiries, and all of the other blowback, NASCAR is going to wish they did more to stop crashes like these from happening.

  10. james t suel Says:

    IF YOU BUY A TICKET TO A AUTOMOBILE RACE ,YOU ARE PUTTING YOURSELF AT RISK! READ THE FINE PRINT ON THE BACK OF YOUR TICKET. RACING IS NOT A GAME! NASCAR RULES DO PROMOTE BIG WRECKS.LOOK AT THE DAYTONA 500 ,IT WAS A PARADE, NOONE COULD PASS!

  11. You can get hit by a foul ball at a baseball game as well as a hockey puck at a hockey game. As for these crashes, The crash was bad, but I think that without some of the safety features that have been developed in the last 20 years, it could have been much worse for the fans AND drivers.

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