Have They Made Auto Racing Too Safe?

Bob Margolis@BobMargolisContributor IIMay 29, 2014

AP Images

It’s an argument that’s as old as the day is long.

Have NASCAR and IndyCar made racing too safe?

And have millions of fans stopped watching it because they no longer see the big wrecks and images of drivers being carried away in an ambulance?

I’ve just finished reading another brilliant column by Ed Hinton over at ESPN.com. In it, he talks about how brave (or how crazy) Tony Stewart was earlier this week when he got back on the horse, so to speak, and got behind the wheel of a winged sprint car. It was the same kind of car that got him injured so badly he missed most of last season and is still recovering from his injuries in the current one. I for one hope that Stewart’s getting back on the horse will help to kick-start his lackluster 2014 season. Let’s hope so.

Last weekend, race fans got to witness one of the best Indianapolis 500 races in recent memory. The thrilling final laps, highlighted by race winner Ryan Hunter-Reay’s bold pass of Helio Castroneves that ended their wonderful dogfight, somehow erased the memory of the first 149 laps of the race, laps that were far less entertaining.

Fans at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway got to see a somewhat safe race, although there were several crashes near the end, including a serious one that involved pole winner Ed Carpenter and James Hinchcliffe. 

The speedway has been the scene of some terrible crashes, several of which resulted in the loss of a driver’s life. So it was a delight to watch all the drivers involved walk away, angry perhaps, as in the case of Carpenter, but nevertheless, they all walked to the ambulance for the brief ride to the medical center for a mandatory examination.

Earlier in the month, many IndyCar fans saw something completely different. It took place at the start of the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis when pole-sitter Sebastian Saavedra's car stalled on the grid as the lights went off, signaling the start of the race. Unable to alert the cars at the tail end of the grid, the result was an ugly display of how to destroy several very expensive race cars in rapid order. Not one but two cars at the tail end of the starting grid plowed into Saavedra’s motionless car.

It was a terrible scene, one witnessed by most of the fans in the main grandstands. Fortunately, despite the carnage and debris scattered across the race track, all of the drivers involved were able to escape without serious injury.

Ever since NASCAR lost its biggest star on the final turn of the final lap of the sport’s biggest race, there’s been a debate about safety in auto racing. NASCAR was so stunned by the event that it vowed to never let it happen again. The sport vowed to make its racetracks safer and to design and build a car that would prevent injury to a driver, not cause it. Its first priority became safety. 

The result was NASCAR’s oft-maligned Car of Tomorrow, which nearly all fans hated. The drivers hated it too. But when driver Michael McDowell drove one at nearly 200 mph into the wall in Turn 1 at Texas Motor Speedway in April 2008 and walked away, suddenly everyone realized that the ugly duckling was the most beautiful of all. Just like in the fairy tale.

IndyCar officials also knew they had to build a safer race car. The early versions of the Indy Racing League’s car were so dangerous that even the most minor of incidents resulted in serious injury to the driver. IndyCar team owner Sam Schmidt can attest to that. His injury occurred as the result of what, at the time, looked like a less-than-serious hit into the wall while testing at the Walt Disney World Speedway in 2000. Today, Schmidt is a quadriplegic as a result.

Ironically, the driver who was so instrumental in the development of the current IndyCar, Dan Wheldon, died in the final race of the 2012 IndyCar season. His accident might have been avoided had the series been racing with the new car, which has modifications designed to prevent the kind of accident that took the life of the Indy 500 winner. The current IndyCar is named the DW12 in his honor.

NASCAR hasn’t lost a driver in one of its major series since Dale Earnhardt's death in 2001. It likes it that way. And so do the fans, we hope. 

It’s risky business to suggest otherwise. But race fans do like their wrecks. There's something about watching two cars collide that fascinates us. Like a moth to a light. If there is any doubt, just ask yourself, is there anything more infuriating than to be sitting in a long line of traffic, just because everyone in front of you has to drive slowly by the accident on the other side of the highway?

Author Ernest Hemingway is credited with saying, "There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games."

He is probably right. But does that mean that auto racing has to be as bloody as, say, bull fighting? After all, it’s the bull that does the dying in that sport, not the matador.

Can professional auto racing continue to thrive with the threat of injury or possible death to its drivers being removed from the equation? We as fans have to honestly ask ourselves why we go to see auto racing. Is it for the competition, or is it for the wrecks?

Many will say it’s to see the wrecks. That shouldn’t be surprising since we live in a world where two men locked in a cage beating the life out of each other until one taps the floor is judged as sport by millions.

There’s no tapping the floor in auto racing.

In Hinson’s piece, he alluded to a new generation of drivers who have grown up in a world where auto racing is seen as a video game. That lack of realism, the idea that you can participate in something dangerous and not get hurt, has also been blamed for the alarming rise in gun violence in this country and around the world. After all, you can shoot people or get shot yourself and live another day without any consequences in a video game.

In auto racing, those who work in and around it know all too well that it is still an extremely dangerous sport. If someone was to take a survey of drivers in the Sprint Cup garage asking them if they would still be in the sport if NASCAR went back to racing pre-2001 cars and drivers were without the use of devices such as the HANS device and races were run on race tracks without SAFER barriers, what would the response be?

Maybe it’s time we ask. 

The answer is sure to settle the question “Have they made racing too safe?”