As the Cup series cars crossed the finish line for the 2020 Daytona 500 on Monday night, the NASCAR community received a significant wake up call. Battling for the lead during overtime for the Great American Race, an incident involving Ryan Blaney and Ryan Newman resulted in a horrific accident that chilled the crowd in Daytona and the millions watching at home, nullifying the potential joy of what was one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history. As race winner Denny Hamlin solidified his Hall of Fame career with a 3rd Daytona 500 victory, Newman’s Roush Fenway #6 flipped through the air after full speed contact from Corey Lajoie and skidded in a shower of sparks and flames towards the exit of pit road. At the time of this writing Newman was confirmed to be in serious condition, but not in a life threatening state that was surely feared by anyone watching in the moment. The ensuing chaos exposed not only the vulnerabilities of NASCAR drivers in 2020, but the vulnerabilities of fans, the governing body, and the media that covers it. What got us to this moment, and what do we do now?
NASCAR has not experienced a death directly related to an accident since the 2001 Daytona 500 when Dale Earnhardt crashed during the final lap, ushering in the greatest era of safety the world of auto racing has ever seen. At the time, death in auto racing was feared, but not ever out of the question. The only thing truly shocking about Earnhardt’s death was the man himself, perceived as invincible and at times possessing the properties of American folklore. Once we accepted that anyone could be killed, the escalation of safety features to cars, tracks, personal safety equipment, and on-track response time has been nothing short of remarkable. In the 19 years since, death in America’s most popular form of auto racing has faded to the realm of the unlikely, and only to be thought of briefly and quickly dismissed. Scary looking accidents no longer hold attention for being potential tragedies, but have become a positive aspect of the spectacle itself. A car barreling over at high speed, a car on fire, a car flipping into the catch fencing would engulf the senses for a brief moment, but would invariably give the fan a new part of the show when he would emerge from the twisted metal heroically waving to the cheering crowd. Broadcasters make repetitive remarks to the joys of SAFER barriers and HANS devices before the car has even come to rest, a confidence that’s been equal parts refreshing and ominous. In fact even during Monday’s finish Fox showed a retrospectively unfair split screen of Denny Hamlin pumping his fist in victory as the safety officials begin forming their man made cone of obstruction around the smoldering Ford #6 car. What feels like a deserved salute to safety and bravery has unfortunately become a thin veil to our belief that we have conquered mortality in one of the world’s most dangerous professions. Monday’s accident was different however. Three direct hits on the driver’s window at full speed could only be described as a “perfect storm” to damage the most vulnerable part of a NASCAR stock car from this current era. Newman’s accident in a snap moment made us realize that people can still be gravely hurt in a NASCAR race, and we could see it on the driver’s faces once the severity of the accident was realized.
While the media and fans have become complacent, it’s been no more evident than in the conduct of a high percentage of drivers that their own safety is being taken for granted. While no driver is trying to get someone hurt, the reckless nature of many competitors has proven that neither financial nor mortal issues are in the mind of drivers when the chips are down. The Busch Clash exhibition race, also at Daytona from the previous week, (cutely retroactively nicknamed the “Busch Crash”) should forever serve as a monument to the kind of thinking that must change. Many fans looked back on that race with frustration on the reckless abandon with which the drivers slung their cars around and into each other without a care in the world. Not because of safety, but because the race was taking too long with all of the accidents, and a bunch of highly paid “professionals” looked like they were smashing their matchbox cars in the backyard…but at 200 miles per hour. Brad Keselowski, among his many remarks after crashing out of the Clash race, made an offhand notion that without helmets or seatbelts, perhaps the drivers would drive with more respect. While it may not come to that, perhaps Monday’s event will provide the intended effect.
I’m hopeful that NASCAR drivers will wake up and smell the coffee here. They can still be killed driving these cars. The fans and the media need to do their part here as well. Social media reigns supreme, and we need to do a better job of recognizing behavior that’s antithetical to driver safety. When a driver acts like a battering ram to win a truck or xFinity series race and is only punished with a few “aw shucks” moments in victory lane, the young driver learns nothing other than validation for a dangerous method they can use to win. There was no egregiously out of line driving in the finish to the 2020 Daytona 500, but there wasn’t much regard to what could, and did happen after the cars made contact either. We’ve tried to prevent serious injury and death, and have come as close as we reasonably can. The drivers are the last piece of the puzzle. With all the financial, leadership, and fan satisfaction issues that have dogged NASCAR over the last decade, we’ve been reflecting more on the wilder moments that capture the imagination, always counting on the literal safety nets to permit the bravado to continue. The time for that is over. If we as fans really do want to rekindle that feeling from the “good old days,” we have to stop glorifying moments that encourage reckless behavior. The next couple of years will see a lot of change in NASCAR with new styles of cars, new track schedules, and hopefully some new business ideas. The mojo from everyone involved appears to put the next generation of racing back “in the driver’s hands.” If that’s the case, perhaps we can put some more of the responsibility of safety back on the drivers as well. There are a lot of things that need to be left behind when we move into the 7th Generation of NASCAR auto racing. Is it too much to ask that we leave our perceptions of invincibility behind as well?
Matt can be found on Twitter.