'Clear and Present Danger'
Late Spring 1999

After the recent tragedy at Lowes Motor Speedway in which three spectators were killed during an Indy Racing League event, the issue of track safety has once again become an issue.

As improvements have been made for driver safety over the past few years, perhaps it is time for the race tracks to increase their measures to protect the paying customers. Suddenly, attending an auto race has become a dangerous mission. Nobody goes to baseball game or a hockey game or a golf tournament thinking they could be injured. Yet, today's race fans would be foolish to say thoughts don't cross their mind.

Some might say that the incident in Charlotte, and a similar incident last year in a CART race at Michigan Speedway, occurred because the suspension parts of the open wheel cars are designed to come apart. In theory, by the car disintegrating, it lessens the energy absorbed and in effect protects the driver. However, the suspension pieces are often thrown in the air.

Winston Cup fans might claim the incidents do not affect "their" racing. Not exactly. When a tragedy occurs in auto racing, it affects the entire spectrum. As much headway as Bill France claims that NASCAR has made, it is still not considered to be a "mainstream sport" in the United States. Most U.S. media outlets tend to favor coverage of baseball, basketball, football, hockey, and to a lesser degree, golf and tennis over auto racing. Why has the mainstream media been reluctant to cover racing? I don't know. Maybe it's the "southern stereotype," maybe it's the fans that cheer when a driver wrecks, or maybe it's because three fans left a race track in body bags for the second time in as many years.

Again, the problem is not limited to the IRL or CART circuit. The "it only happens in open wheel" theory is wrong. Pieces of wrecked stock cars have gone into the grandstands on occasion and spectators have been hurt. In 1987 at Talladega, Bobby Allison's car spun backward against the catch fence. Debris from the wreckage injured fans in the first few rows. You might say that was an isolated incident more than ten years ago. There are more recent incidents though. As the 1997 Daytona 500 wound down, Jeff Gordon tried to pass Dale Earnhardt coming off of turn two. Earnhardt got loose and hit the wall. Dale Jarrett then hit the rear of Earnhardt's car causing the GM Goodwrench Chevrolet to flip over. Ernie Irvan hit Earnhardt's car and the hood from Irvan's Ford flew into the air. It landed in the grandstands on the backstretch. Luckily, nobody was seriously injured. One fan suffered a broken arm as he tried to protect his head as the hood fell out of the sky toward him. The flying hood could have easily killed someone in the backstretch grandstand.

What are race tracks to do? Lately, they've been taking a reactive stance. Act when a tragedy occurs. Perhaps it's time for tracks to act proactively to prevent a future tragedy. Instead of just raising the catch fence along the walls, extend it over the racing surface. That would eliminate the possibility of large objects careening into the grandstands. Great idea, right? Well, there's some opposition to that. Yes, there are people that oppose fan safety. Why? Because of the almighty dollar.

If you've ever watched a steel cage wrestling match, the first thing you notice is that it's more difficult to see inside the cage. Should tracks extend the catch fence over the asphalt area of the tracks, television cameras would have a difficult time capturing the wide angle views that have become commonplace. In other words, television would have to reinvent the way that it currently covers racing. If sightlines were affected, would fans continue to watch, or attend, auto races? Instead of a camera on top of the grandstands, a camera on the infield might be necessary to capture an unobstructed view. It might take some time to get used to the extended fence, but it would eliminate the possibility of hoods, wheels, and suspension parts flying off of race cars and into the stands.

One drawback to the drivers would be if pieces flew up and hit the "roof" of the fence the debris would careen back onto the track, thereby creating a possible risk of damaged race cars. But, consider the alternative of debris flying into the stands and killing spectators. The drivers are able to do what they do because of the fans. Without the fans, auto racing doesn't exist. If people keep leaving race tracks in body bags, racing won't exist.

The steel cage, or "hell in a cell," version of racing would provide a safer environment for fans. Perhaps a "clear shield" alternative could be implemented to preserve visibility and sight lines for both the spectators and the viewing audience. However, it is an issue that has to be addressed by track operators. Whenever a fan attends an auto race, the possibility exists that they could be hit by flying debris; it's time for tracks to eliminate the risk.

Another possibility is extending the fence inward, over the seating area. Though I wonder how many race fans would attend an event if they felt like "caged animals" enclosed by protective fencing. The outward fence extending over the asphalt area of the track seems to be the best alternative. Well, there is another alternative... ban auto racing. It might sound ridiculous in theory, but imagine this "hypothetical" situation. After a tragedy, a number of Fortune 500 sponsors begin pulling out. Why be involved with something that creates bad publicity? Without the sponsors, teams wouldn't be able to afford certain necessities. There's a tire bill every weekend, employees have to be paid, and those race cars don't show up at the track on their own. Highway to the danger zone indeed.

The worst part about the tragedy at Lowes Motor Speedway was that it could have been prevented. It's easy to call it a "freak occurrence." Except, that it wasn't. It was a situation that has occurred more than once over the past year. And it has to stop.

At Lowes Motor Speedway on Saturday night, three spectators that came to see an auto race were killed. That's something that track operator Bruton Smith will have to live with. Like Roger Penske had to live with the tragedy at Michigan Speedway a year ago. Instead of lamenting a tragic situation, Bruton and other track operators should seize the moment and take proactive steps. Don't just extend the catch fence two feet and claim you've solved the problem; go the full distance and save lives.

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