Contrary to popular belief, speed doesn’t kill; however, going fast has consequences and one of those is the danger when a fast moving object comes to an abrupt stop or, in the case of Daytona International Speedway this past Sunday night, when a car gets airborne racing for the win.
The knee-jerk reaction for some early Monday morning after Denny Hamlin spun into Austin Dillon’s No. 3 Bass Pro Shops/NRA Chevrolet and sent it flying into the catchfence was to scream, “Something must be done. People are going to die because of crashes at restrictor-plate races!” First, that is an overly broad and far-reaching synopsis to a complex problem. Second, it just shows some people’s inability to grasp the fact that auto racing is dangerous, but with continued safety improvement, the devastating effects from crashes that we’ve seen in the past have been limited.
When Carl Edwards went airborne at Talladega Superspeedway and debris from his car injured several fans, track operators and NASCAR officials met to make improvements that reinforced the catchfence. The same thing happened after Kyle Larson’s car went airborne at Daytona during the season-opening Xfinity Series race in 2013. Surely, after the dust settles and blood pressures return to normal, NASCAR and Daytona officials will meet again to make even more changes and improvements. Perhaps, one solution is to move fans further out of the perceived “Danger Zone.”
However, after watching video of all three of those crashes, it’s plain to see that the safety devices in place did what they were designed to do. Yes, the argument can be made that Larson’s engine went into the grandstands after his car punched through the crossover gate. But the catchfence is designed to keep the car from exiting the racetrack. In all three scenarios, the 3,500 lb. racing machines were tossed back onto the racing surface.
Were people injured? Yes. Did people die? No. If memory serves, the last fan to die at a racetrack was struck by lightning and even then some media members and NASCAR critics pointed fingers at track officials and the sanctioning body like they could control the weather. It’s safe to say, if NASCAR could control the weather, then Dillon’s crash wouldn’t have occurred at 2:41 a.m. Monday morning after a protracted rain delay.
Only one of the 13 fans evaluated by care workers was taken to the hospital, eight received no care and four were hit with small pieces of debris that the catchfence was not designed to stop. The only way to stop any and all debris from reaching the stands would be to have a solid fence made from clear acrylic, but that would significantly hinder the fan experience.
Looking back at the crash, there will be lots of scenarios discussed and probably some finger-pointing, as well, but the blame for this accident lies squarely on the shoulders of competition and the thrill of victory. As the field came around turn 4 on the final lap, the outcome of the race was still up in the air. Dillon was pushing Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick was pushing Hamlin – all of them hoping they could get past Dale Earnhardt Jr., who went on to win the race. As it’s happened many times in the past, the Big One occurred and chaos ensued. Because the safety devices implemented by NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway performed admirably, Dillon and everyone else walked away.
“It looks like it kept the car in the racetrack, which is good,” Hamlin said, after being released from the infield care center. “I rode in the ambulance with Austin [Dillon] and he said he felt fine. I think everything has gone really well and I think NASCAR has done a great job and this track has done a good job of stepping up. Anytime you get these cars turned around backwards at these speeds there’s going to be lift and we’re going to get these cars in the air, it’s just part of physics. I think everything did its job there.”
In fact, liftoff speed is a complex physics formula that I won’t pretend to understand; however, breaking it down into layman’s terms, a medium-sized jet airplane can achieve liftoff at 150 mph. A racecar usually goes airborne at about 160 mph.
Auto racing is inherently dangerous, and while no fan goes to the track believing they will be injured, there is a possibility it could happen. Obviously, drivers know this before they strap in, but fans also acknowledge it when they buy a ticket to the races. It’s written on the back in black and white. At the end of the day, the only way to not experience some form of danger when racing is for men and women to stop doing it.
Kudos to NASCAR and every single track operator, especially Daytona International Speedway, who have done their best to ensure the proper safety equipment is in place, so fans can experience one of the most exciting forms of motorsports on the planet.