NASCAR Race Weekend Central

NASCAR, Daytona Know How Close They Came

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.

(Photo: CIA Stock Photography)
Kyle Busch will miss the start of the 2015 season after injuries suffered in Xfinity competition, leaving M&M’s without their spokesman. (Photo: CIA Stock Photography)

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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kb

They knew exactly what was what, and said screw it. It would not benefit them financially (in their eyes) to do it, they were just hoping they would not get caught. But, of course there is plenty of money for “Daytona Rising”, give me a break. I honestly thought this was a non issue at this track given what happened and is still fresh in people’ s minds. All you hear about is the paid talking heads telling us how safe everything is and the strides they made. and how Nascar is serious about safey..and they care! PLUHLESSE, stop insulting fans and drivers.

Bryan McArthur

I’m sorry but it’s easy to blame everyone else but the reality is that the drivers them selves need to be more vidulent and speak up. They drive the track and walk the track.
The so called talking heads never mentioned any drivers who spoke of these walls as being a danger. They all spoke of how much better it was that the grass had been removed and they could stop better on the asphalt that replaced it.

christine xander

this should of been thought about before hand not after words its a shame they do things backwards

janice

it was only a matter of time before someone hit a non-safer barrier wall and got seriously injured or worse. i by no means a kyle busch fan, but when i saw them stabilizing his leg, i figured it was an injury similar to stewart’s sprint car wreck. after 2/18/2001 there IS NO EXC– USE except for not wanting to spend the money, that tracks don’t have safer barriers on all walls. daytona rising…..sure let’s add fan sites and whatnot…..but the track? sorry but a pack of 40 cars, with a lot of rookies, is the infinity/nationwide/busch series touts itself as proving ground for young talent, and 200 mph = disaster. i see where daytona has piled up tires on the inside walls, especially where busch hit.

and people wonder why gordon is retiring? he’s taken a few hard licks over the years and has the damaged back to show for it.

what price is the series and tracks willing to pay? i realize the drivers race cause the desire to do so and know all the risks involved, but we’re already starting 2015 season with a dark cloud. busted up leg is not a death, but a head on hit into an immovable surface doesn’t take much to have the worst outcome.

Steve

We don’t know if Busch’s injuries would have been any less severe had SAFER barriers been in place. Despite airbags, people still die in head on crashes. Wheldon died even though he was wearing one of the safest helmets there is. Sometimes, a crash is severe enough that injuries result. Let’s not jump to conclusions just because it’s trendy to blame NASCAR and say that Busch would have walked away if only he had hit a wall with a SAFER barrier. Maybe he would have, maybe he wouldn’t have. But none of us know. At least not as of now.

Richie

While I do agree that a sudden, head on stop at 90+mph may very well result in the same injury, safer barriers or not. I still say there is no excuse for not having the barriers in place. NASCAR would certainly be in a position right now of saying, “Hey, we took every precaution.”

Tim S.

Right. The concrete is just as safe as the other barriers, and NASCAR always has safety in mind. Just ask the Irwin family.

GinaV24

Having a car bounce onto your cockpit as happened to Weldon, well, I don’t think it would have mattered one bit what kind of helmet he had on. Sure, people die in car accidents from lots of things, but the SAFER barriers have certainly mitigated the force of crashes and not having them in place is just NASCAR/ISC and the other tracks as well, being cheap.

GinaV24

Tom, you are more generous toward NASCAR/ISC than I am. They knew exactly what they were doing and were quite willing to keep on gambling with driver’s lives. We’ve seen some ugly crashes on unprotected walls at more tracks than just Daytona and luckily no one was killed, but that doesn’t mean they were hurt in some way. NASCAR has been willing to use its drivers as crash test dummies and just fix things “as needed” and say “oops, we missed a spot”.

I have had the thought for some years that Jeff Gordon’s back problems are the result of the wreck at Pocono and aggravated by that hit to the inside wall at Vegas.

Yes, Kyle Busch is lucky that he is alive and it is certainly not because the Daytona suits cared one little bit, it was just sheer luck.

Bob

I was amazed when I saw him climbing out of that car – amazed that someone could have survived that type of hit at that speed. (Remember the Greg Moore crash and how violent that was?) But when he stopped halfway out of the window and motioned to the safety crew member to say something, I knew he was injured. He was smart by immediately notifying the safety crew and by not trying to stand on it or otherwise further aggravate what likely involved protrusion though the skin. Immediately talk began about the safer barrier and I did a little bit of quick math. Daytona is spending $400 million on improvements. If that inside wall is say 800 feet long and the safer barrier is $500/foot, then the $400,000 spent on the barrier in that location would be 1/1000 (one one-thousandth) of their renovation budget. With all that the racing world has learned the last couple of decades about driver, crew and fan safety – and with the money the tracks are spending elsewhere on improvements – there is no excuse for not having a SAFER barrier.

GinaV24

Yes!

Bobby Nash

The Kyle Bush wreck proves how cheap the France family is! They don’t care about safety for the drivers. They care about money in their pocket!

bernie fronzaglio

Hurry back remember u only have 2. Legs let them heal your ride will b there m.m.s is a great sponsor. Your family

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