Motorsport has long had a problem of romanticizing danger. The deaths and injuries of historic drivers — and even drivers who could have had promising careers — have been celebrated as a feature, not a bug, of high-speed competition, and change is long overdue. And that means it’s time for motorsport fan surveys to stop asking disingenuous questions about crashes.
This week, IndyCar and Motorsport.com have teamed up to curate a fan survey that, in many ways, serves as a great place for fans to share their thoughts on race venues, rules and off-track goals. There’s just one problem: it once again transforms crashes into something enviable, something that the series should try to create.
Here’s a screenshot from the survey:
The problem here is not asking about crashes directly so much as it is the framing of the question. Asking if “spectacular crashes” meet, exceed, or fall below your expectations is disingenuous. It frames the crash as inevitable and desirable, something that fans are tuning in to see. It’s not asking if you were disturbed by any crashes, or if you thought the way IndyCar handled a crash met your expectations. It’s saying, “We intend that crashes will happen, but did you want more multi-car pileups or total car disintegrations?” It’s putting safety in the backseat and giving morbid entertainment the wheel.
Formula One, which also partnered with Motorsport.com to develop its fan survey, included the same question:
While neither IndyCar nor F1 are perfect, rating crashes as spectacle is especially disturbing in American open-wheel. In the past 10 years in F1, Jules Bianchi was killed and Romain Grosjean was seriously injured but was able to keep racing — both of which were horrifying and rare occurrences, as it had been two decades since a driver died during a race. In the past decade of IndyCar, Dan Wheldon and Justin Wilson have both been killed. Drivers like Robert Wickens were brutally injured in ways that destroyed their racing careers. Others, like James Hinchcliffe, were able to return to racing after horrifying injuries that were just that: horrifying. It feels especially morbid for IndyCar to promote the kind of problems that have plagued the series for decades.
That isn’t to say open-wheel is the only culprit. NASCAR has long promoted its racing with crashes, and its fan surveys are often littered with loaded questions. I wasn’t able to find any screenshots of recent surveys despite remembering plenty of discourse around the loaded questions, but I did find a screenshot of a Fan Council survey from 2016 via Reddit that has asked similarly loaded questions.
In this example, fans were encouraged to select one option in 11 different pairings to create the “perfect NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.” Some of those options are “drivers racing aggressively” versus “drivers racing clean” and “clean cars” versus “trading paint.” These are loaded questions which often imply that racing clean is boring while racing aggressively is more exciting.
The problem is furthered by the interpreting of these statistics. There’s extremely little nuance in the question options, which enables loose interpretations of any gathered data. To refer to the IndyCar question, you could easily interpret a set of results as “fans like crashes just as they are” or “fans want to see crazier crashes,” which could result in anything from more easily-deformable body kits to cars that are more difficult to drive and could result in more accidents. The framing of the question only allows for crashes to be a good, essential part of racing that every series should enhance.
There are better ways to talk about crashes. Surveys could ask about the responsiveness of safety personnel or the value of driver safety. They could ask fans to rank crashes in a larger list of aspects of what makes a great race so a series can understand if fans actually want crashes or if they’re prioritizing any other number of factors instead. It’s time for race series to start that new conversation.