It could’ve been worse. After Kyle Busch’s second tire failure of the day at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday, he made his way behind the wall, clipping a race fan as he came to a stop.
The fan, Erin Vandyke, was checked out at a local hospital and was okay, but the incident set off a flurry of social media activity blaming Busch, blaming Vandyke, blaming millennials even – for not paying enough attention to what was going on in the garage area.
It’s easy to assign blame to either party – perhaps Busch should have slowed down when he saw Vandyke, but could he maneuver the car with the damage he’d sustained? Perhaps Vandyke should have stayed behind the rope barrier meant to keep fans out of the way of crew members and race cars, but did she expect a car to come through the pits at that exact moment?
NASCAR made this statement following the race: “[W]e will look at it to see if there’s anything we can do from a security perspective. We always reiterate to anyone that’s in the garage to be alert. This is a live race that’s going on. It was roped off. And thankfully, she was OK. As with any incident, we’ll go ahead and take a look and see what we can improve upon.”
This raises the question, then, should tracks (and by extension, NASCAR) provide hot passes to fans?
THE SAD BUT NECESSARY TRUTH: HOT PASSES FOR FANS MUST GO
Ms. Vandyke is a very lucky woman. The fact that we’re able to have this discussion after a minor hit and not a more serious incident is a blessing.
But we mustn’t use the lack of injury to gloss over the fact that the garage is a very dangerous place. Things happen during practices and races, and fans need to keep themselves apprised of the action going on around them. The accident this past weekend is a perfect example. Vandyke passed under a rope barrier and had her back turned to the lane when Busch came through. Some are even arguing that she was extending her phone outward to take a selfie – it certainly looks as though that is what was happening but we can’t say for certain.
Her negligence got her hit. She posted to Facebook after the race that she was in a “safe area” of the garage, but I disagree strongly. There’s no such thing as a safe area while the track is hot. Too much is not under control and freak accidents happen. Mark Martin ended up driving through the infield at Talladega in the 90s and the infield is supposedly a safe area too. For anyone to think a hot racetrack is safe isn’t being very realistic.
Fans must be completely focused on what’s going on around them or they shouldn’t have hot passes. And with the proliferation of smart phones, messaging apps, the obligatory selfie – fans just don’t pay attention anymore (see: declining television ratings). Or they do and they try to get even closer to the action. That is where accidents happen.
When I started working at New Hampshire Motor Speedway a couple of years back, one of the first pieces of advice I was given came during my first foray into the garage area during practice: stay out of the way. I was – as are fans – a guest in the garage area. But just staying behind the white painted line on the ground wasn’t enough. The next piece of advice I received, as I walked towards Jeff Gordon’s stall, was to move back even farther. “He likes to swing wide,” I was told. Sure enough, Gordon cut over the line.
That is why fans shouldn’t receive hot passes. Too much isn’t under control, and most fans don’t think about the waivers they’re signing when they hit the credential office. They just want that exclusive access without realizing things could go south fast. The access that NASCAR gives fans is unprecedented, and even with banning hot passes can fans get close to the action. Pre-race pit passes, frontstretch access to concerts, etc. are all ways that fans can get near their favorite drivers.
It’s a sad reality, but it’s in the fans’ best interest. You get a better view of the race from the stands anyway.
HOT PASSES ARE QUINTESSENTIAL NASCAR
One of the biggest appeals of NASCAR is that the series allows its fans more access to their favorite drivers and teams than nearly any other sport. Based on that notion, for NASCAR to remove the potential of hot passes for its fans would be nothing short of foolish.
What happened on Sunday was frightening. The biggest fear in the garage area is always that someone will get hit by a car or piece of debris, and those fears came to life at Bristol in a big way. Thankfully, the incident wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
That said, it seems silly to rob a potential experience of a lifetime for hundreds of thousands of future fans because of the mistakes of one.
Taking away hot passes altogether isn’t the answer. The real issue lies with awareness and opportunity to get hit.
A glance at the issue that occurred on Sunday will show that the spectator that was hit was by herself, in the middle of the lane that Busch was attempting to navigate through. With the caution flag out, and the field slowed, everyone in the infield should have known to watch for cars potentially coming to the garage. Somewhere along the way, whether the spectator was on her phone, listening to something, or merely zoned out, her awareness clearly dipped.
In this scenario in the future, this needs to be prevented. The easiest way to do that is to save these people from themselves with stricter guidelines and have personnel there to assist them.
Perhaps spectators should be required to maintain their position in the infield until the garage is signaled clear, or perhaps clearance from a trained security worker should be required to move to another area of the garage.
I don’t know all of the answers to fix this issue. I’m not sure anyone does. I just know that one freak incident shouldn’t be enough to steal a precious future memory from some of the sport’s biggest fans.