Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: An Open Letter to Race Fans – Did You Cheer Knowing a Driver Could Die?

Dear race “fans,”

Did you stand up and cheer on Saturday night (Oct. 15) when Jimmie Johnson got loose racing Ryan Newman, slamming the outside retaining wall? Did you rejoice because the seemingly invincible Johnson saw his title hopes slip away, because he wins too much, or simply because you don’t like the guy? Did you?

You ought to be ashamed of yourself.

Did you figure it was OK because the cars are so safe nowadays? Did you excuse it by reasoning that you didn’t really want to see him hurt; you were just happy about how it changed the points race? Did you brush it off because Johnson, within moments, was talking to an ESPN reporter like nothing was wrong? Perhaps you didn’t think about it at all because hey, crashes make the sport exciting?

You ought to know better.

Part of being a race fan is choosing your heroes and villains. But that’s not what this is about. It’s one thing to pull for your chosen driver, to stand up and scream your loyalty at the top of your lungs as if that alone will bring him home a winner. That’s what race fans do. You might even harbor a deep desire for the one you have selected as your own personal villain to have 36 engine failures in a row, melancholy mechanical disaster beginning with February’s Daytona 500. Or maybe you just secretly hope he sits on a tack.

That’s called being a loyal race fan. It fuels the passion for the sport, makes watching races fun.

But cheering when a driver hits a wall, often at upwards of 150 mph, sometimes at a head-on angle, crosses a line. At that moment, you don’t know whether the driver inside is going to emerge intact. Later, when he’s treated and released with no injuries, sure; be happy, relieved even that it gives the driver you cheer for help in the points.

Maybe you secretly hope it will knock him down a peg from some perceived personality flaw. In German, that’s called schadenfreude, which translates into joy at the misfortune of others. It’s part of human nature, albeit an ugly part. Sports fans take joy at the misfortune of their competitors and you know what? In the end, it’s part of what makes you a fan.

But taking joy in a racecar driver slamming into a hard wall, at speeds we would never risk is no longer being a fan. In fact, it’s the opposite. There is no sportsmanship in what you did on Saturday night, race fans. None. Nada. Zero. Zilch.

People die racing cars. They die.

For NASCAR fans, it’s been ten years since a driver lost his life in a major touring series. It’s easy to think that safety in auto racing has evolved to a place where everybody will walk away from every crash. It’s not true. If you watched the IndyCar season finale on Sunday, you know that.

Veteran driver Dan Wheldon lost his life because of a simple mistake on the part of another. With no time for drivers to react, a 15-car wreck ensued at speeds approaching 220 mph; within seconds, Wheldon’s car went airborne and tore into the catchfence, cockpit out.

It was two hours before television viewers learned of Wheldon’s death, but if you’re a race fan, you recognized the all-too-familiar signs: the tarp covering the car even as the others, some very heavily damaged, were carried away on wreckers; the car rolled onto a flatbed truck so as to protect it intact for the investigation which is sure to come; the Medivac chopper whirring to life; the long, painful wait for news, which comes quickly if the driver is reasonably unhurt but so very slowly if there is family to be notified before a public proclamation can be made; the faces of the crewmen and drivers on pit road; series officials calling all of the drivers into a lengthy special meeting.

By the time the official announcement was made, there was little doubt left.

So instead of a championship celebration for Dario Franchitti, there was a sad, somber procession around the racetrack as Franchitti openly wept, his fourth title in five years an afterthought at best. Around him, the cars slowly circled the racetrack as the scene transformed from day to celebrate a season of racing and the crowning of a champion into a tearful final farewell; they ran three abreast, in Indianapolis 500 formation while “Danny Boy” and “Amazing Grace” played on the public address system.

It was a fitting tribute for the beloved driver, a veteran who had just that very day signed a full-time deal to replace Danica Patrick at Andretti Autosport in 2012. Such a tragic end to what should have been a triumphant time; and as the dust settled for millions, the feeling was far too similar to one February Sunday in Daytona.

Do you remember that day? Were you a Dale Earnhardt fan? Did you mourn his passing as if you knew him, because in a way, you did?

You lost your hero? You cried those tears? And yet you stood and cheered when Johnson slammed into the wall so hard that the rear wheels of his car were lifted from the ground? You shrieked with joy for an accident that looks so much like the one that killed Earnhardt that it’s truly scary.

Though the two accidents begin differently, the end is eerily similar.

And give up the excuse that the SAFER barrier did its job. Yes, it did. In fact, Johnson hit it so hard that it flexed all the way to the concrete; but Las Vegas had a SAFER barrier, too. Stop pretending that as long as a driver is wearing a HANS device, he is invincible. He isn’t. Wheldon was wearing the mandated restraint and he died anyway, because he was launched over the wall in such a manner as to render those protections useless.

Safety innovations are wonderful additions to the sport, but they cannot and will not overcome the frailties of the human body 100% of the time.

There but by the grace of God go I.

The horrific scene that played out at Las Vegas could very easily have played out on Saturday night at Charlotte. That could have been you sitting in the stands, shivering and waiting on some kind of word. Johnson’s wife was sitting on the pit box; that could have been Chandra in Susie Wheldon’s place, left to raise their little girl without her father the way Wheldon’s children will grow up without theirs.

Johnson’s closest friend, Casey Mears, was in his racecar, immediately asking about J.J. on the radio; that could have been him in Franchitti’s place, trying to see his way through the tears to drive five laps of honor for his friend. At the moment of impact, nobody could have known that Johnson was relatively unhurt. And you cheered for that.

Don’t bother to deny it or to say you waited until Johnson was clearly OK. We could hear you in the media center, where the reaction was a horrified gasp. In the stands, maybe you didn’t see the immediate similarity to Earnhardt’s fatal crash, but seeing it on the screen, it was hard not to.

Have you been at the racetrack when a driver has been killed? Be careful what you wish for through those smiles. It’s a life-changing experience that will leave you hollow, drained to the point that hollowness never quite fills up again.

Did you know that Johnson lost his best friend in a wreck at Charlotte? Did you cheer that night, too, when Blaise Alexander battled for the win on the final lap – and never made it out of his car?

See also
That's History: 5 Years to 1 Blaise... & Gone

And if you didn’t cheer for Johnson’s wreck, would you have cheered if it had been someone else? Kyle Busch, maybe, or Carl Edwards; Tony Stewart or Dale Earnhardt Jr.? Or were you in Las Vegas on Sunday, hooting and hollering because Will Power lost any hope for the IndyCar championship? It doesn’t matter which driver it is, in what series, on what track.

Drivers die on short tracks and road courses as well as the big superspeedways. It doesn’t matter if you think that driver had it coming for winning too much, or for having a bad attitude, or for some other perceived personality flaw. Death doesn’t discriminate between the good guys and the not-so-good. It is equally unacceptable to cheer for a crash involving anyone.

So, race fans, keep cheering for your driver. Keep hoping for those 36 straight engine failures. Take great delight in the idea of him sitting on a tack. But think twice before you take such joy in a person’s misfortune when he is putting his life on the line for your entertainment.

Think twice before you rejoice without knowing if a child will grow up without a father, a wife without a husband, a friend without the other. Remember if you mourned the death of another driver on another day. Show a little sportsmanship. And don’t cheer another wreck. Just don’t.

Did you cheer on Saturday night when Jimmie Johnson slammed into the wall so hard he moved the SAFER barrier nearly two feet?

You ought to be ashamed. You aren’t a race fan.

This Monday, the racing world mourns the death of a driver, husband, father and friend. It could very easily have been the second time this weekend; at Charlotte, we certainly got lucky. But don’t be fooled; next time, the racing Gods may not be so forgiving.

Will you cheer then?

Hoping for the best,


Somewhere, in some faraway place that we cannot see, there is one hell of a race going on. Today, one more great driver joins them, running flat out, belly to the ground, as they turn for home. Goodbye, Dan.

About the author

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Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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