Of all the major American sports, racing is the one that must continuously monitor its rules in order to keep pace with evolving technology. Most of the time the changes are made to improve driver safety and modify cars to ensure competitive racing under extremely dangerous conditions.
Saturday’s crash, however, has overshadowed a week of historic positive racing news with the emergence of Danica Patrick as a legitimate female contender in a male-dominated sporting world.
The wreck occurred in the final lap of the Nationwide DRIVE4COPD 300 race when Kyle Larson became airborne sending his car into the catch-fence in front of the grandstand coming out of the fourth turn.
Larson’s car disintegrated leaving his engine lodged in the fence while a 150-pound racing tire went soaring into the stands. The wheel landed nine rows back from the fence.
Former president of Charlotte Motor Speedway, H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler said, “If you put the first row about 30 feet back and about 14 feet up in the air, that would solve almost every problem you’ve got.”
It is typical for front row seats at most race tracks to be very close the action. The first row of seats at Daytona is only about 10 feet from the fence.
Most of the danger lies at tracks which are a mile and a half or larger because of the higher speeds of the cars which can result in increased violence during a crash. Daytona and
Drivers race bumper to bumper for five hundred miles while topping speeds of more than 200-miles per hour on some parts on the track
Another problem for NASCAR, which leaves the ruling body caught between the need for safety and the desire to give fans a complete racing experience, is the “green/white/checkered” rule which was instituted to keep races from ending under a caution flag.
In the simplest terms, the “green/white/checkered” rule comes into play at the end of a race when a yellow flag comes out in the final laps of the event. Laps continue to count under caution, which means if debris cannot be cleared from the track before the final lap takes place, the lead car would be declared winner.
After several races finished under yellow several years ago, NASCAR changed the rules to ensure there will be a race to finish. What it amounts to is a one lap sprint to the checkered flag which causes all the front running cars to take chances to win that they would not normally take.
It is an accident waiting to happen. The drivers know it and the fans know it. But it is a Catch 22 because the very thing that makes a race exciting also makes the rule arguably the most dangerous in sports. That is what happened Saturday and, more often than not, a horrendous crash occurs at some point in that final charge to victory.
Says Samuel Gualardo, former president of the American Society of Safety Engineers, a group that has done extensive research to make racing safer, building a fence that could withstand the force of a flying race car is possible, but it would require a thorough engineering study.
Gualardo agrees with Wheeler that the simplest way to protect fans is to move them back from the danger. “Obviously it will be a revenue decision by track owners because you’ll be eliminating that set of rows,” he said.
Some say that could make the sport less appealing because some fans love to be down close to the action. On the other hand, anyone who has ever sat on the front rows for a 500 mile stock car race on a hot Sunday afternoon knows all too well that four or five hours of engine noise and the flying “marbles” of bits of tire rubber is not a pleasant experience.
From 1990 until 2010 there have been at least 46 deaths at all
NASCAR is keenly aware of the dangers of its sport and is compulsively concerned with driver and fan safety. Beginning in the 1990s, NASCAR mandated that wheels and hoods be tethered to the cars to make the parts less likely to fly off into the stands.
On Saturday, despite the fact that the tether seemed to work, other parts that were attached to the tire were also released during the wreck. Said Wheeler, “I’ve never seen drivers as shook up after a race as Saturday.”
Viewers who watched driver interviews after the race can attest to the fact that every driver involved initially expressed concern for the fans.
Racing by definition is dangerous, for drivers, pit crews and fans alike. NASCAR will eventually find a solution, but as long as the “green/white/checkered” rule exists to give spectators their money’s worth, there is no way to completely prevent another wreck like the one that happened Saturday.
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