Brett Poirier · Tuesday March 5, 2013
The fence along the frontstretch at Daytona International Speedway stands 22 feet high. After Brad Keselowski launched Carl Edwards into the sky at Talladega in 2009, Daytona brought in a structural engineering crew and increased the height of its frontstretch fence from 14 to 22 feet.
Clearly, 22 feet wasn’t enough.
In an interview with ESPN’s David Newton last week, Whitney Turner compared the 12-car Nationwide wreck at Daytona on Feb. 23 to a horror movie. Turner’s fibula was broken and Achilles tendon was sliced when metal and a tire flew into the grandstands and injured her and 27 other innocent fans.
So, who is to blame for such a horrific incident? Is it the drivers, the cars, NASCAR, the track, the fans? Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR Vice President, Racing Operations essentially blamed the fence during an interview with The Associated Press last week.
The fence literally was hit the hardest by the melee on Feb. 23, and in the week that followed it was smashed in a figurative form. NASCAR deflected blame from its public relations disaster toward the fence on the frontstretch (thereby blaming the track), and more directly the gate opening where the incident took place.
“I think because of where it came through and having pieces that did get through and it being a gate area, that’s really going to be the focus for us to look at,” O’Donnell told The Associated Press. “We’re certainly going to look at fencing in general, but I think that particular area, that it was a gate, did impact it. We know the gate was locked, but does that provide as much stability as the rest of the fencing we believed it did? We’ve now got to look at that impact.”
According to the article, NASCAR plans on bringing in Dr. Dean Sicking, Director of the Midwest Road Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska — AKA, fence expert — in to take a look at the structure.
Because that’s the biggest problem here — the fence.
Hopefully, Sicking can help Daytona International Speedway build a fence that extends into outer space. Cars will be able to flip end-over-end into the atmosphere, and the folks in the grandstands can stand and applaud without a worry in the world.
Wouldn’t that be nice?
Apparently, 28 injured fans and a scene out of “Saving Private Ryan,” wasn’t a big enough wake up call for NASCAR officials. In that same AP article, O’Donnell said the sanctioning body would take a look at restrictor-plate racing at Daytona and Talladega, but for now he is comfortable with the current product.
I wonder how comfortable Turner was as she was sliced apart watching the sport she loves.
NASCAR’s ratings went through the roof the next day for the Daytona 500, in large part because casual sports fans were drawn in by the Nationwide wreck to the circus that is restrictor-plate racing. And that’s exactly what it is at its current state — a circus. But, it’s one we all tune in for. Year after year, most of NASCAR’s highest-rated races are at Daytona and Talladega. According to Sports Business Daily, the Daytona 500 received an average rating of 8.0 in 2012 — the highest rating all season by far. After Daytona, ratings began to dip gradually each week, reaching a new low of 3.6 at Richmond, before jumping back up to 5.1 at Talladega.
NASCAR saw a 25 percent drop in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic last season, and needs the circus more than ever to bring in younger fans, who may not be as passionate for good old-fashioned short-track racing as you or me.
The end result is 28 people were injured and the only thing that might change is the fence. Don’t get me wrong; the fence should be looked at. Anything that can be done to make the sport safer should be done, but the product on the track is a much more pressing issue than the fence, but NASCAR is plenty comfortable with that.
The sad truth is for real change to come — and the change is going to have to be in the racing — something far worse is going to have to happen.
After all, NASCAR only makes real change after it’s too late. It took one of the most legendary figures in the sport, Dale Earnhardt’s death for NASCAR to mandate head-and-neck restraints, and to make safety improvements to the cars themselves. It took a crew member to suffer severe head injuries in 2001 before helmets were mandated the next year. It took for Aaron Fike to admit he was using heroin daily for a drug policy to be implemented. It took Dale Earnhardt Jr. missing two races, and the threat of him leaving the sport, for NASCAR to even look at a concussion policy.
The list could go on and on. The strategy is straightforward — let the worst possible scenario happen, and then react accordingly (plead negligence and do what should’ve been done a long time ago).
Until then, the Daytona fence can keep taking the hits, literally and figuratively. Unless, another car happens to fly over.
So NASCAR, what does it say about the racing when a fence 22 feet high isn’t enough to contain it?
Build the fence stronger and higher.
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