Race Weekend Central

NASCAR’s Dark Side: The Price Of Passion

If there is one universal attribute in racing that runs through the very veins of every driver, crewman, official and fan, it is passion. Passion has always run strong in the NASCAR community, passed from one generation to the next as seamlessly as water, or sometimes unexpectedly ignited in someone new at the sound of an engine or the smell of warm oil. Passion makes good drivers better. It pushes crews to find the miniscule advantage, one that mans the difference between winning and finishing second. It makes fans support their drivers from their early days, to the height of a career, then through the fading twilight into retirement with an optimism that always serves to keep them believing. The sport fuels the passion, and in turn, the passion drives the sport. It’s a part of every race, every pass, every win.

But with that passion there sometimes comes a heavy price. Usually that’s the part nobody likes to think about, but it’s always there. You give your all for the love of the sport, and sometimes it costs you dearly.

Race fans come to the track for moments like these, meeting their favorite driver in the midst of victory. But, unfortunately, a darker risk is there in this sport for a night out to turn tragic in a heartbeat.

We were all reminded of that cost on Saturday, when more than two dozen race fans were injured in a last-lap crash in the Nationwide Series race at Daytona. As the cars came off the last turn for the final time, a last-ditch block set off a chain reaction that saw Kyle Larson’s car rip into the catchfence just before the start-finish line. After a vicious impact, it erupted briefly in flames before coming to rest in the infield grass amongst the other damaged machines.

Except, Larson’s car didn’t look like a car any more; the entire front end, right back to the firewall, was simply gone. For one heart-wrenching moment, the driver’s fate hung in the balance of our collective imagination. But the roll cage around the driver did its job, and Larson climbed out under his own power, only to stand and stare in disbelief at the place where, just moments before, there had been two wheels, fenders, and the powerful Hendrick engine that had made him a frontrunner for much of the event. The questions on his face were clear: What happened? Where was the rest of the car?

The terrible truth was soon revealed. ESPN cameras revealed the engine, front clip, and a wheel lodged in the catchfence where the infield crossover gate for pedestrians had been. The catchfence was destroyed, with great, gaping holes marring the chain-link, while support cables lay in twisted piles. The residual fuel in the engine briefly ignited as track security moved fans back from the wreckage.

We all knew then, I think, that people were hurt. There couldn’t _not_ be injuries — one wheel from the No. 32 had been caught in the fence, but the other had flown over as the frame that the wheels are tethered to disintegrated. Shrapnel was strewn along the fence, just feet from where fans were sitting. With smoke still billowing from the carnage, at first Tony Stewart was subdued in Victory Lane; he understood that some things are so much bigger than a trophy on a shelf. We didn’t know then, of course if all of the drivers involved were OK. We’d find out later, luckily as they trickled out of the Infield Care Center, that they made it through. But word on the fans came much more slowly, shrouded in confusion and speculation.

NASCAR is almost like a living cell: dynamic, insular. And if the drivers and teams are the nucleus, driving its purpose, the fans are the outer structures that nurture and protect it, feed it. It’s a community; fans feel like an extended family of sorts, bound by the passion they share with the teams and drivers. When someone is injured in a crash, we look at the inherent risk of so dangerous a sport. It’s always tragic, although not totally unexpected. But when a fan is caught in the fray, it’s a little different. That person paid to be there, maybe sacrificing and saving to be able to sit in that seat and watch the sport unfold before him. Everyone in the garage or the track office feels perhaps a little bit responsible. That fan was a part of the family.

But fans, in reality, _do_ face risks at the racetrack, and they go anyway. On the back of every ticket is a warning; the sport is dangerous, so please don’t blame the track or NASCAR if something goes wrong is the essence of the “hold harmless” clause. And the risk is real. Race cars weigh more than a ton and a half and are made of many, many parts that can fail or fall off. The catchfences are strong, but they can’t be infinitely tall, can’t realistically stop every piece of hot, sharp debris from those cars. But fans, like drivers, crewmen and officials, accept the risk.

It is NASCAR’s responsibility to keep everyone, from drivers to fans as safe as possible. I hope that fences are one area that _will_ be examined. This one did its job, stopping the hot, heavy engine from flying into the seats, but the chain link must also act like a cheese grater, helping to shear off parts and pieces. Perhaps there are better ways to build them. However, in a sport where men defy the laws of physics in metal cages, sometimes things just happen. Truly, the drivers are not to blame. The track is not to blame. _Nobody is to blame._ Sometimes in life, bad things happen. They just do.

Understanding the cost of passion: Jimmie Johnson, over a decade later, still runs this decal in memory of fallen friend Blaise Alexander and the victims of a Hendrick Motorsports plane crash.

The cost of the sport isn’t limited to fans. It infiltrates the garage. Drivers know the risks, but that doesn’t mean they don’t hurt when the risks catch up. They aren’t immune to the emotional cost of racing any more than to the physical… yet they do it anyway. If you know where to look, you will see the marks left from paying the price of passion. On the Richard Childress Racing cars, there is a No. 3 on the doorpost. In that way, Childress’ longtime friend and the driver that will forever carry that team’s banner, Dale Earnhardt, Sr. is always with them. The little flame on the front bumper of Jimmie Johnson’s car has been there since he was a rookie, bearing the name of his friend, Blaise Alexander, who was killed in an ARCA race at Charlotte just hours after Johnson qualified for his first Cup event. Later, the tail number of the Hendrick airplane that crashed on its way to Martinsville was added to the decal on Johnson’s car. The price these people have paid to be a part of the sport is there for all to see, their heart on their sleeve, so to speak.

In some ways, the emotional risk is even greater than the physical one. When tragedy strikes and a driver or fan is lost, there are many in the sport, including fans, who feel shaken to the core by the loss. Loss hurts. Ask everyone affected: the driver’s family and friends, crews, officials and fans. Fans feel like they lose a family member when a driver is lost, and they feel that way for another fan, too. Look at YouTube, sometime and you will see dozens of videos made by fans trying to make sense of the grief they feel at these losses. They understand the pain of a Brian Vickers, who lost his best friend not once but twice, to the sport: first Adam Petty in a practice crash on a cold New Hampshire day and then Ricky Hendrick on the side of that Virginia mountain. Vickers will probably never be able to celebrate his birthday without a sting of pain: he turned 21 that day in Martinsville, and Hendrick had been going to take him to celebrate after the race. But he straps into that race car every week. They all do; the fans still go.

And in the end, that’s how it should be. There was talk that NASCAR should have canceled the Daytona 500 in the wake of what happened. As long as the fence can be repaired to the degree that it needs to be, that should not happen. Teams raced after Earnhardt’s crash; one of Earnhardt’s teams won that race. The Hendrick teams raced — and won — the week after the plane crash. And they should race now, in the name of the fans who were injured. My guess is that those fans will want it that way. They were there because they love racing, knowing the risks involved. But they still went anyway, for love of the sport; shouldn’t everyone else do the same?

Also, for some of the fans in Daytona, for the 500 this event might be a once in a lifetime trip. They might not have another chance to fulfill their dream, born of their passion. No; they need to race. As the engines roar to life with that angry, defiant rumble, we should all take a moment to think about the true cost of the sport — those who have been lost, and those who have paid either the physical or emotional price of the passion they all share. And then, the green flag should wave.

Yes, the passion has a price, and everyone paid a piece of it in one way or another on Saturday. That cost should make everyone pause for a moment to reflect. But anyone who has been injured or lost in the sport also would want it to go forward — it’s what racers do. As long as we understand and accept the cost, and it is great, the passion, and the sport are, in the end, worth it. The only way we could not honor those who have paid the price most dearly is to stop caring.

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