NASCAR Crashes: A Conflict of Narrative

With every NASCAR race weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, a promise of big, spectacular crashes is sold to fans as part of the show. Sunday’s Geico 500 fulfilled those promises in spades. Near the end of stage one Joey Logano’s Penske Ford sailed both into the air as well as incoming traffic in a scary incident that nearly avoided a direct high speed collision.

The view from Bubba Wallace’s helmet (Fox Sports)

While airborne crashes are on the downward trend overall, this is not a new concept. What has changed is the attitude of the television broadcast when reflecting on such incidents. Back in the days before the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001, most hard crashes were met before and after with a sense of sobriety, the appropriate notion that a driver had perhaps cheated death, with the unspoken desire to someday defeat that level of mortality. In the years since the death of Earnhardt, as the proverbial concrete of safety advancements began to set, the reflection has shifted more towards the performative angle out of the broadcast booth. High pitched yelps and squeals out of the color commentators, most notably Clint Bowyer, with sophomoric remarks about releasing one’s bowels at the prospect of a scary incident have replaced any somber tones from decades gone by. It’s not to say the commentators are out of line with decency, but as Joey Logano’s post crash interview proves, it’s out of line with some of the competitor’s feelings themselves.

After Logano’s comments, which in essence concluded that he and his fellow competitors are closer to death than we are giving credit for, Fox’s reaction during the broadcast was to simply ignore and press on with the coverage. Ryan Newman’s horrific accident at Daytona last year happened of course at the end of the race so there was minimal commitment to narrative needed, as the days that followed essentially wrote themselves. With a severe accident so early on yesterday, Fox was presented with a chance to have a conversation about safety, and they simply chose not to. In many ways this particular network is woefully underqualified for such a conversation, as the staffing and narrative is geared solely around the circus type atmosphere, which can be entertaining until that crucial moment of truth. While the more experienced Cup series booth chose to ignore, the far less experienced group calling the ARCA series race on Saturday found themselves in over their head when dealing with a dangerous crash.

The ARCA race Saturday (considered the 4th series down on the NASCAR ladder) had a fiery crash towards the end of the race that was completely fumbled from a broadcasting standpoint. As Derrick Lancaster struggled to get out of his race car while it was engulfed in flames, the broadcasting team failed to convey the gravity of the situation, only able to recite pre-cooked dialogue talking points to the “window net being down” or that Lancaster laying on the ground and/or on a stretcher was a “good sign.” There is no intent from me to pick on the team that called the ARCA race, there was no malice involved. Had they known that Lancaster was soon to be on a ventilator with 3rd degree burns the message would not have be delivered in this way. That being said, there’s a clear lack of preparation at an institutional level to address serious incidents, most likely due to their sharp decrease in frequency. We aren’t prepared for it when it happens, and we’re sure as hell not willing to discuss it after a near miss.

This process, as it sits, is untenable. What’s to follow without some consideration is either to ignore the concerns of drivers on the public stage, or prove that we’ve learned nothing from Ryan Newman and have a tragically incorrect reaction to the next serious incident. We ADORE driver interviews when they cuss or make sound-byte worthy remarks to the quality of fellow competitors, but we’ve lost focus with the more important things they have to say. As shown in the video above, Tony Stewart warned us and we listened. Joey Logano is warning us now, and it seems we’re going to let it slide. The 7th Generation of Cup cars is right around the corner, and with that comes new challenges to competition and safety. But we’re still over half a season away from that, and we can’t get complacent. The 2021 campaign might really end up as the “best season ever,” but we shouldn’t mortgage our future for the sake of a television narrative. Let’s keep the conversation going, NASCAR works best when we’re all-in together.

Follow Matt on Twitter for more NASCAR hot takes and soda pop recommendations.

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