Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: NASCAR’s Safety Innovation No Reason to Promote the Carnage

One said goodbye to the sport he loved. The other took the ride of his life. Two drivers in circumstances not of their making, two moments in time that each represents both the best and the worst of NASCAR.

Saturday (Aug. 26), hours before the field took to the track for the final race of the 2023 regular season, Kurt Busch faced the media to make the announcement that he was formally retiring from racing. Busch hasn’t raced since suffering a concussion in a qualifying incident at Pocono Raceway in 2022 but had hoped to be cleared to compete at least on a limited basis.

See also
Kurt Busch Officially Announces Retirement

That never happened, and, finally, Busch and his team of doctors had to concede that Busch wasn’t healthy enough to return. The reality is he may never be. So, Busch, a driver whose passion was one thing that couldn’t be questioned even if just about everything else about him could at one time or another, will hang up his helmet.

The crash didn’t look that bad. Busch didn’t slam into the wall head on; he backed it in, an angle which previously meant a lesser chance of injury. But the Next Gen car, built for durability, didn’t give the way the previous cars had, and seemingly small impacts were seeing drivers sit out with injuries.

So, NASCAR made changes to the Next Gen to increase crumple ones so that the car absorbed more of the impact. It isn’t perfect, but it is better. While it hasn’t eliminated concussions (and when a car slams a wall at any angle at the speeds NASCAR routinely sees, it cannot absorb all of the impact) some is transferred to the driver. The sport and the cars by nature cannot be 100% safe all the time. And NASCAR has, at least since the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001, taken massive steps to improve and to keep improving driver safety. 

Ryan Blaney can attest to that. He took a wicked hit in Saturday night’s race after getting turned into the outside wall by Ty Gibbs. Thanks to the racecar, his personal safety equipment like head restraints and the SAFER barrier that lines racetracks, Blaney climbed from his car and talked with reporters after getting checked in infield care.

That crash was typical Daytona International Speedway, the product of a race package that allows cars to race inches apart, lap after lap, unable to get away from the field.

The next crash was, even for a superspeedway, far from typical. Just a handful of laps from the finish, Erik Jones was on the back bumper of Ryan Preece at the top of two lines of cars running nose-to-tail. Jones tapped Preece’s car at just the wrong angle and sent Preece sliding down the track. 

That still looked like typical Daytona, at least up until the moment when Preece’s car caught the edge of the infield grass. The transition caused Preece’s car to lift slightly, and once more air got underneath it, it took off. Preece flipped once, and then again as the car launched into a series of flips that looked more like a video game than reality. Preece spun several times in midair before slamming down and launching back into the air and slamming down again.

The car, when it finally stopped after at least 10 complete rotations, looked like it had been hit by a wrecking ball. The front end was torn off, and the rear was flattened like a pancake.

But the cockpit stayed intact. Preece climbed out under his own power before being taken to a local hospital as a precaution. He has since been released.

See also
Ryan Preece Released From Hospital After Daytona Crash

Blaney and Preece are both on the entry list for Sunday’s Southern 500. The entry list comes out early, and it’s possible one or both will not be cleared, but for now, it looks like a bullet was dodged in spectacular fashion. Twice.

The elephant in the room is that a lot of bullets have been dodged since 2001. But when you stand in front of a firing squad week in and week out, the reality is that someday somebody is going to get hit.

NASCAR has done an absolutely incredible job improving safety for drivers and crews. Racing will always be dangerous and there will always be a risk that a career will end before it should, or worse, that a driver won’t walk away. That’s a risk everyone in the sport from owners to crews to drivers to fans understands and accepts.

But at the same time, NASCAR (and the broadcast media) often seem nearly callous about safety even as they innovate. 

Watch the promotions for races, especially at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway; how is the race being advertised? With replays of multicar crashes and chaos. The Daytona broadcast closed with Preece’s wild ride, and it’ll be in the commercials for next year’s race, hands down, and probably for years to come.

Using crashes to promote races is, at the very least, the wrong approach. At worst, it seems like NASCAR and the broadcast media don’t care about what happens to the drivers as long as people tune in for the carnage. NASCAR’s actions on safety prove that’s not true, but if that’s someone’s first impression of the sport it’s an impression of violent chaos instead of the complex strategy game it really is.

Advertising the crashes plays into the stereotype of the redneck race fan—“Hey, y’all, hold my beer and watch this!” And most fans, contrary to popular belief, don’t watch for the crashes.

Most fans watch for what racing really is: strategy and raw speed, hunger and hard work, a dance between man and machine and track. Crashes are a by-product of hard racing, but they aren’t the reason for watching and aren’t something to cheer about. They’re the result of drivers who are human and make mistakes, not a stunt show for the masses.

There’s a faction of fans who do tune in for the wrecks. Most of them will say otherwise but in the same breath declare their love for the type of racing we have at Daytona and Talladega.

And the truth is, that racing is exciting.

It’s not a good excitement, though. The crashes are coming; we all know it’s only a matter of when and a matter of who, not a matter of if. But fans tune in and a lot of them proclaim their love for this breed of racing—and by association, the crashes that come with it.

See also
Stock Car Scoop: Flips, Eliminations Abound at Chaotic Daytona

It’s time for the one safety measure we haven’t seen NASCAR take in the last 25 years: breaking up the packs on superspeedways and giving drivers more throttle response. The latter would be a massive undertaking requiring a special engine for those tracks because they need to produce low enough horsepower to run unrestricted. The former would also require expense to the teams, but it’s past time for it to happen.

In the meantime, it’s time to take the crashes out of the commercials. Fill them with the closest finishes, the most thrilling passes. Sell the celebrations, not the relief that another driver walked away.

The sport is the safest it has ever been. There’s no need to glorify the moments where it’s put to the test, as that seems complacent and callous.

On Saturday, one driver walked away from a terrifying crash. That shows NASCAR’s commitment to safety. But another walked away from the sport he loved. That shows there’s still a long way to go.

Selling the first driver as a reason to watch says the second one’s career-ending too soon doesn’t matter if the masses are entertained. The broadcast almost gleefully anticipating a multicar crash sends a message that crashes are part of the entertainment, and well, let’s just hope nobody gets hurt in the process.

Racing is about so much more than the crashes. It’s time to sell it for what it is, and remember what it isn’t. 

About the author

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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Shayne

So, NA$CAR continues playing Russian Roulette with driver lives, but the problem is folks watching races to see the wrecks. Got it.

Safety innovation? Safer barriers and the HANS device were available in 2001. Cue the crickets.

Kurt Busch should sue NA$CAR.

Bill B

What do you expect? There is no way to totally mitigate the dangers and risks involved in driving a 3000+ pound vehicle at 200 mph around 30+ other vehicles in close proximity doing the same thing.
Why should Kurt Busch sue NASCAR? He isn’t an idiot. He knows racing is a dangerous business. If he didn’t want to take the risk he shouldn’t have become a race car driver. Geez.

DoninAjax

There isn’t much chance of getting hit head on by a driver going the wrong way.

Alfred in AZ

Well said Amy. The superspeedway tracks (except the new ATL track) are products of the 60’s. Cars were obviously not safer then, but the speeds were lower. I attended the first Daytona Speedway race – a photo-finish!
Yes, drivers were injured and killed in that era on all kinds of tracks; safety is much improved today, but this kind of racing today is a stupid exhibition show, not a motorsports competition. The “big ones” are baked into the format; its a damn crapshoot.
The car speeds, even with tapered restrictors, have outgrown the tracks.
A seriously different engine package as you have suggested and/or reconfigured race tracks are needed to stop this ridiculous carnage.

Bill H

The engines are not the problem. Engines produced more power then than they do now. The cars are not too fast on the straits, they are too fast in the turns because aerodynamics (and radial tires) is the problem.

It used to be that a large measure of racing was how deep into a corner a driver could go before braking, and how soon he could hit the gas exiting a turn, and this was true even at Talladega and Daytona. Now they are flat on the gas all the way, because aerodynamis keeps them at full speed in the turns.

Not only are they lowering the car to use ground effect, but they are laying the windshield almost flat as well as the back window. Raise the window vertical and let ari underneath the car, and horsepower won’t matter. Cars didn’t start flying through the air until the aerodynamics got out of hand.

Jeremy

Agreed. And while they’re at it, remove the rear wing, front spoiler, and side skirts. Make them run all the front nose openings uncovered, and put them on narrower, harder compound tires.

Steve

Apparently, out of all the talking heads on the broadcast, nobody noticed the #15 hit the inside wall very hard hit in the same wreck that Blaney was in. Between the 50 replays, the constant yapping about the playoffs and the #9, I guess it was too much to ask to broaden their horizons and cover something other than the chosen ones.

Also, the collective patting Nascar on the back was pretty sickening after the Preece wreck. Its like they had it ready for when the next driver escapes death at that track. Cars should never be getting airborne. Period. And lack of criticism was a joke.

DoninAjax

Back to the drawing board for the experts designing the Brianstein monster.

Jeremy

I watched a replay of the Preece wreck because it was spectacular enough to make a sports headline in my google feed.

Anyone else notice the car doesn’t appear to crumple nor dissipate any energy? The height it was getting on the 2nd and even 3rd bounce off the ground was shocking to see. It looked more like a hard rubber football tumbling about than a car. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a rollover wreck that looked quite like that – specifically what appeared to be a more vertical bounce trajectory after each hit, plus more flips. Typically, they are rolling and flipping more in the direction they were heading – a smoother arc from the ground if you will. These arcs looked to be much sharper upward. It was just weird.

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