About every month, in my inbox I’ve gotten an update on the Daytona Rising project, detailing the renovations at Daytona International Speedway. By all accounts, what President Joie Chitwood III and the Speedway have done to modernize Big Bill France’s 2.5-mile creation has been nothing short of spectacular. Every day this week, I’ve walked through a Sprint Fan Zone that’s near the top of the charts for fan interaction and engagement. Fans, who already are allowed on the racetrack beforehand and able to sign the wall where drivers run 200 miles an hour will soon sit in modernized grandstands. Daytona Rising, the sport’s keynote renovation, was appearing to do everything right.
All that would be moot, a gluttony of excess spending if Kyle Busch wound up Daytona Dead.
It sounds dramatic, but you could tell by the tone of Chitwood’s voice Saturday night just how close they came to disaster. A track spending hundreds of millions on renovations, who clearly has the money to make safety improvements, had neglected to put the SAFER barrier around portions of the inside wall on their racetrack. Never mind speeds at DIS had creeped up above that dangerous 200 mile an hour average, even with restrictor plates. Never mind the plate package leads to dangerous, multi-car wrecks that typically wipe out 40 percent of the field. NASCAR and its track arm, the International Speedway Corporation was willing to take that chance.
It was a gamble that left Kyle Busch in a hospital bed, with a compound fracture of his right leg combined with a mid-left foot fracture. He’ll get rolled out of that place in a wheelchair, miss the Daytona 500 and several races thereafter. M&M’s, Joe Gibbs Racing, and one of the sport’s big-name teams is left in the lurch for what could be the first few months of 2015. Frankly, they’re lucky it wasn’t worse, based on the angle and speed at which Busch collided head-on with that inside wall. Anyone who saw Mark Martin wreck at Talladega, in early 1994 knows those inside walls are unforgiving at a large superspeedway. That’s why fans, analysts, and other drivers took to Twitter and screamed, completely unforgiving that Busch had no extra SAFER protection.
To its credit, Daytona has stepped to the plate and immediately vowed to fix the situation. “Daytona did not live up to its responsibility today,” said Chitwood. “We should have had a SAFER barrier there today, we did not. We’re going to fix that. We’re going to fix that right now.”
At times stern, at times clearly stressed, Chitwood detailed how the Speedway would spend the money and get every inch of that racetrack covered in SAFER, wherever possible. NASCAR? They were far less committal, in part because they’re not absorbing the cost of getting these barriers installed. Each individual racetrack is, making it difficult for the sport to force an outside partner (like Dover Downs Speedway) to spend the money unless they’re going to open up some purse strings themselves.
“We always have those conversations with the racetracks,” said NASCAR Vice President Steve O’Donnell. “The racetracks work together with us on the SAFER barrier recommendations. What we’ve said here tonight is we will accelerate those talks with the tracks. We want this sport to be as safe as possible for not only our drivers, but everyone who participates in the sport and the race fans as well.”
Both men knew the magnitude of what happened; both knew how close they came to catastrophe. The sport has entered the season with new eyes on it, a fresh boost of momentum and great opportunities to expand their reach with the new TV deal. A more serious injury to Busch could have turned the tables, turning Daytona Rising into a multi-million dollar failure to live up to what is constantly trumpeted as the sport’s number one priority: safety. It’s hard enough for the drivers, who through restrictor plates are put in too many positions that are out of their control. If one of their own died, suffering an injury they thought could be prevented? There might be an all-out mutiny, even a potential boycott of Daytona and Talladega. (Prayers, of course, go out to Busch for a speedy recovery in light of his injuries.)
To a lesser extent, Joe Gibbs and other Sprint Cup car owners have something to think about. Busch was running a support race, the XFINITY Series which has tried for years to subtly limit or minimize the impact Cup drivers have on their series. It’s an age-old argument, one that’s sparked spirited debate. After Sunday, expect that debate to heat up in the back rooms of corporate offices. M&M’s now has lost their spokesman, the man they pay millions to represent their brand. If Busch wasn’t running lower series, well, the hard answer is he wouldn’t be hurt. You wonder if owners, sponsors, and drivers themselves will now conspire to leave the “second” and “third-tier” NASCAR divisions to the up-and-comers trying to move up the ladder.
But that story is one that can be discussed another day. Saturday night was about taking a breath, sitting back and recognizing the seriousness of what happened. Yes, Busch is hurt but NASCAR sure got lucky it wasn’t worse. He will recover and race again; the sport now must learn so this mistake never happens again.
“We really can’t look at financials,” said Chitwood. “We have to have a venue which we can put on NASCAR racing and have competitors be safe.”
Hopefully, this decision will spur other tracks and perhaps NASCAR itself to eventually act the same way. I look forward to the next Daytona Rising update; you know, the one that’ll give us proof these drivers are that much SAFER driving around this superspeedway.
There really is no other way to go; one close call should be more than enough.
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