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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

A Question of Risk: Is Death Too High a Price for a Driver to Pay?

This past Thursday night, NASCAR lost a great racer. John Blewett III lost his life in a wreck during the New England Dodge Dealers 150 at Thompson International Speedway. He was driving his No. 66 modified at the time of the incident. A champion of several tracks throughout the East, at 33 he was considered a seasoned veteran of the modified circuit.

It is at moments such as these, when we are mourning the loss of a competitor, husband and father that it behooves us to stop and consider the dangers of racing and the choices that are made by racers and fans to continue participating in the sport.

When the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. passed away in 2001 during an on-track incident, many fans, media members and fellow competitors all voiced a similar sentiment; while his death was no doubt a tragedy, it was fitting that a man who had spent his entire life driving stock cars and loving it died in the continued pursuit of his life’s passion. Similar statements were made when Tom Baldwin, another Whelen Modified racer, died in 2004. He too was a middle-aged competitor who loved this sport to the distraction of all else, leaving his son to carry on the family name in racing as a crew chief in Nextel Cup.

But our emotions are pulled in a darker, less certain direction when the driver that suffers the ultimate end in a race is younger. John Blewett’s wife Seychelle and his son John are left wondering about many things that have little to do with the joys of racing today. Moments like these beg us to ask the question, is racing worth the risk? Should I, as a mere bystander, buy the tickets, t-shirts and diecasts that fuel the money machine known as NASCAR?

Most spectators of the fastest American sport will admit, in a moment of honesty, that our blood pumps a little faster when a car meets the wall. We cheer and jeer when sheetmetal shreds and emotions run high. We often dub races as boring when the winner leads by a number of seconds or beats the competitors through better gas mileage. Are we nothing more than a pack of blood-thirsty wolves waiting for the carnage to ensue?

On the other hand, thousands of men and women choose to climb into racecars every week across the nation. Most of the racing events are not nationally sanctioned, but managed by local enthusiasts. Safety regulations may not be as strict as the shiny, pre-approved version we watch on Sundays. Still, the competitors make the choice to pit their shadetree machine against their neighbors. There must be a moment when they conceive of the very worst happening, and yet they decide to start their engines and take the green flag.

In my own mind, I look at auto racing as the 20th century’s continuation of mankind’s need to win. There is no moment in history where one man has not been challenging another to some kind of contest, to a determination of his superiority over another. And there has never been a shortage of spectators – attending a competition is one of the greatest joys humans share as a community, whether it be a Little League game or the Daytona 500.

Does this mean we must accept death as nothing more than a vagary of this brutal sport? No. It means we must continue on in our vigil to ensure that improvements in safety are never considered complete, but only a work in progress. In this way we can attempt to mitigate the damage a wreck causes.

All my sympathies are with the Blewett family. I thought of John’s entire family and friends as I watched the Busch East race at Lime Rock on Saturday. I cannot begin to truly understand their sorrow. I can only say I do understand why drivers choose to race. The chance to win makes us feel alive as nothing else, and that is worth risking much to achieve.

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