Safety has been a major concern in motorsports for almost two decades now. While one could argue that making racing safer has been a concern for longer than that, the reality is that by losing big name drivers like Dale Earnhardt and Ayrton Senna, the focus became more intense. As a result, NASCAR, Formula 1 and IndyCar, among others, have all incorporated a number of safety measures into their sport.
None of this stuff is news. If you follow these series you’re familiar with the HANS device and the SAFER barrier walls and a number of other aspects. Even the NHRA made the move to shorten the distance to corral speeds and crashes. The evolution continues as F1 is now trying out concepts for making the cockpits of their cars less vulnerable with halos.
All of these measures are good because while the occasional dastardly wreck may serve as some kind of fetishized excitement, no one wants to see a driver killed. The off-track protocols have also gotten strong with drug testing and the process drivers must go through after crashes. That leads us to Will Power of the IndyCar series.
This past weekend Power wrecked in practice. He noted he had felt nauseous but then still qualified his car the next day – even earning the pole. The next morning, still concerned over his nausea and headaches, the track doctors ruled him out of the race with a concussion. Seems like a good thing. Until it wasn’t.
Turns out that after going through a litany of tests at the University of Miami medical center, Power was suffering from the effects an inner ear infection for which he’d already sought treatment. For Power, missing the race is huge. The IndyCar season is just 16 races long and he’s already missing the points from one race – likely jettisoning his title hopes before he’s even raced a lap.
This situation comes back to NASCAR. After missing 11 races, Kyle Busch roared back to life and the put together his most competent Chase ever to win the championship. The rule for NASCAR was that Busch had to make the top 30 in points and win to be eligible – something he did with seeming ease.
But what if NASCAR and the others treated each car as a team and the driver as a component, much like a QB, starting pitcher, goalie, or whatever you want to use as an analogy. For Busch, David Ragan would have been collecting the points for the team and when Busch returned he would have had those points. In the same regard, for Power, being able to take Oriol Servia’s points from St. Petersburg would at least mean that he’d have 14 points and trail leader Juan Pablo Montoya by 37.
It’s a difficult balance. Keeping the drivers safe should rightly be at the forefront and keeping Power out of the car as a precaution is a good thing, but his championship hopes shouldn’t be dashed because of it. After all, Drew Bledsoe came off the bench to throw the game-winning touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers that put the Patriots in the Super Bowl – where Tom Brady led the New England Patriots to the win over St. Louis. Most of the time Bledsoe gets ignored there but his contribution was important.
Let’s get happy.
Happiness Is… Bracket. The NCAA basketball tournament is underway and hogging the sport’s headlines. (How’s your bracket?) NASCAR however, with its playoffs now has a funny situation. With the basic idea that ‘you win, you’re in’ four drivers have now locked in to the postseason. That’s right, with 22 races left in the ‘regular season’, four drivers no longer have to worry like their brethren and are free to race with a different attitude (perhaps that’s why Jimmie Johnson was trying out the no-steering-wheel technique at Phoenix).
A quarter of the playoff bracket is already set (and no, don’t go getting too deep thinking that you need a bracketologist to go over this thing for the next five months). Once again this aspect of the Chase is a weird one. Fans of the drivers already in can now kind of check out should they want and return to fuller attention in September. Drivers not in may already be feeling some sort of pressure, especially if they’re sitting low in the points (doesn’t look good for Clint Bowyer). We won’t even go into the implications regarding sponsors and how they view the situation. En totem, however, how things are playing out makes for some strange divisions in competition.
Happiness Is… TV Ratings. Yep, the ratings were down again this weekend from the Phoenix race. This time we’re led to believe that things aren’t super bad because the decline is merely single digits in percentage points in comparison to a race like the Daytona 500, which saw a precipitous drop. So let’s continue the narrative that no one is watching NASCAR and that it’s terrible and that everything is gloom and doom. But is it really?
Sure NASCAR’s ratings are disappointing in comparison to the high marks of the mid-aughts, but the sport is in better shape than it seems. This column noted that the social media interactions during the Daytona 500 skyrocketed in comparison to last year, indicating that fans are following in different methods. Another aspect to consider is that the ratings for college basketball are also down for this year and all the networks involved there also spent big money of those rights. One further note is that the Phoenix race was the second-most watched sports program of the weekend, sitting just behind the NCAA basketball selection show, and those numbers were close.
Happiness Is… Lights Out. In the NASCAR world we get geeked up for the drop of the green flag (though we could do without the boogity boogity boogity – thank you very much). The green flag waves, the cars race to life and everything’s good. Well the pinky-out crowd gets things going this weekend in Melbourne, Australia. Seemingly the last major racing series to get underway, Formula 1 looks to be set up for an interesting season.
The past two seasons have been runaways for the Mercedes duo of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Hamilton clinched the title with three races remaining, an obvious sign of both his and the team’s dominance. Over the winter, however, Ferrari strained themselves to close the gap and the early signs from testing may indicate that while they’re not outpacing Mercedes, they’re much better able to nip at their heels. Whether or not any other outfit will be able to join the fray is likely the larger question with Red Bull continuing its strained, albeit renewed, relationship with Renault, and with the McLaren-Honda partnership attempting to rebound from a miserable year. The 21-race season gets underway this Sunday on NBCSN. Use your DVR, or stay up late, the race starts in the midnight hour on the east coast.
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