The Blame Game
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.