I've grown up around stock car racing. I was born and raised within earshot of the old Raceway Park in south suburban Calumet Park (its now a strip mall with grocery stores), and my father used to be an amateur drag racer at the old US 30 drag strip in Indiana.
I've spent my share of afternoons at the Chicagoland Speedway NASCAR track in Joliet and evenings at the short race track in Morris on the grounds of the Grundy County Fairgrounds.
But seeing yesterday’s crash at the NASCAR Nationwide at the Daytona International Speedway where Kyle Larsen’s car gets airborne and goes into the chain linked “catch fence” and the crowd gets sprayed with remnants as the front is sheared off. News reports state that up to thirty people were injured and even a tire from the crash ended up 45 rows into the crowd.
Now at our local NASCAR track in Joliet, fans aren't allowed as close to the catch fence as the fans were in Daytona. There are two large spaces from the fence to the first row of bleachers. The first space is wide enough to drive a car through and is monitored and enforced by track security. The second space is almost as large and people are only allowed to walk there. And as an added security precaution the bleachers are a good four steps up so should a crash happen there, it’s a lot of real estate before fans are affected.
Still those of who have been to the races know that racing is dangerous. A few years ago at Talladega Super-speedway in Alabama Carl Edwards was in a similar crash in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race (on the final lap just like yesterday’s crash), and his car went airborne went into the catch fence but from I remember there were few if any injuries.
In the last decade there have been a enormous amount of time, research, and money into making NASCAR stock cars more safe. From the “Car of Tomorrow” that debuted 5 years ago and its replacement, this years new stock car.
I’m sure after this crash (which had more spectator injuries than any I can remember in the last 20 years), there will be calls for making the stands safer, but I had heard there were already proposed grandstand changes for Daytona International Speedway (which are almost a mile long), so what is necessary is a combination of rules changes along with some upgrades at some of the older tracks.
Tickets for NASCAR races like any sports event have a waiver on the back the “expressly assumes all risk incident to the event”. Even more so are the pit passes for which I had for the last NASCAR Nationwide at Chicagoland Speedway this past September. I actually spent most of the race in the walkway in between the pits and the garage area. But to get down there (in addition to paying extra for the pit pass or being fortunate to get the pass in credentials or in a corporate ticket pack), you have to sign a waiver as well as show ID.
Now down in the pit areas there are chain linked fences that must be 10 feet high on either side of you, trust me NASCAR takes safety seriously but also be aware that this race at Daytona (as well I previously mentioned at Talladega), were at Super-speedways which are called “plate races”. The stock cars are “governed” with a steel restrictor plate with holes on it over the throttle body in the engine under the fuel injection. This is done to reduce speed on tracks like Daytona & Talladega where without the restrictor plates, the speed of the stock cars would approach 200 miles hour which has been proven to be too fast to control.
The downside of this is cars “draft” and run in packs that look like freight trains of stock cars to get better aerodynamics and speed but this leads to massive crashes referred to as “The Big One” which can sometimes take out up to a third of the field of 43 cars. It also recently has lead to last lap crashes like yesterday’s because cars are jousting for position and having these groups of cars drafting in such close quarters and still going 175 MPH causes wrecks.
Most drivers have publicly stated they do not like restrictor plate racing because it is restrictive and is very different than regular racing. Starting at the top of the field is not an advantage in in a plate race because its actually better to be in the back to avoid crashes and to “ride out” the early movement and then you can make your moves later in the race and then try an win near the end of the race. Still there are more chances to crash no matter where you are in the race.
So as you watch the Daytona 500 you will hear the announcers talk about the pending “Big One” and hopefully unlike today the cars stay on the track and everyone stays safe.