Illustration for article titled NASCAR Needs A Major Attitude Change When It Comes To Crashes
Photo: Chris Graythen (Getty)

After Ryan Newman’s terrifying wreck at the end of last night’s Daytona 500, NASCAR needs to take a step back and look critically at the way it treats—and romanticizes—danger. The series has been blissfully averse to driver death since Dale Earnhardt died in 2001, when serious changes were implemented to protect the men and women racing for a win on Sundays. But NASCAR officials have been getting lax, and we need to start pushing for a different outlook.

There was no way to anticipate or prepare for Newman’s crash. Much like Formula 2 driver Anthoine Hubert’s fatal accident this summer, you can’t really predict the full impact of a crash until it has actually happened (though through intensive testing, engineers can certainly try). But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the mistakes we’ve made in order to prevent similar situations in the future.

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And in this case, the biggest thing NASCAR needs to change is its attitude toward danger and the way it handles the broadcast in the wake of a big accident.

NASCAR has evidently grown complacent, expecting that no future crash will be truly dangerous and that there will be no serious repercussions. “Safety has been solved” was the message sent. It engenders a culture where we can not only keep pushing for more dangerous situations but also encourage them with manufactured racing.

Much of NASCAR’s marketing depends on “The Big One,” or the big mid-race crash that wipes out a significant portion of the field. Promotions for races feature highlight reels of the big crashes during previous events. Just searching for “big one” on NASCAR’s Youtube page churns out dozens and dozens of results. The message is—and has been, for some time—that the spectacle of the crash is the pinnacle of excitement during any race, the main thing we’re all supposed to watch and wait for.

And there are some fans who do just watch for the crashes. There’s no way to avoid that when NASCAR uses those very accidents are the point around which its excitement revolves. It’s a matter of framing.

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But the emphasis on glamorizing big crashes comes with significant negative side effects, which we saw during the Daytona 500 broadcast. As Newman’s car slid down the track, cameras zoomed in on the gasoline pouring out of the ruptured gas tank. The fire safety crew took an uncomfortably long time to arrive on the scene—over twenty seconds on the broadcast. And during it all, NASCAR aired Denny Hamlin’s celebrations, which went on largely as planned with the requisite confetti and cheering.

The issue here is not Hamlin’s behavior—after all, in-car radio synced to the broadcast shows that Hamlin was not aware of the full extend of the crash because, as was later explained, his spotter was not communicating the information as he sought to receive it. Nor is the problem necessarily the crash itself. It’s NASCAR’s complacency, its normalization of danger, and its broadcasting decisions.

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In many racing series, cameras immediately pan away from an unusually bad crash, and replays aren’t aired until the driver’s condition is confirmed. If the driver is in bad shape but alive, we may get a replay, but it’s still very unlikely.

For example, here’s the Sky Sports broadcast from Jules Bianchi’s ultimately fatal accident. Adrian Sutil’s car is shown because he safely emerged from the accident. Bianchi’s car was not. There was no replay. Anthoine Hubert’s fatal accident in 2019 was similar, where the accident was shown on the live broadcast as cameras followed the start of the race but was not shown again, aside from at a significant distance. Replays of the start were shown as a way to analyze the position of the cars heading into the crash, but the crash was never shown again.

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In NASCAR’s case, broadcasters not only aired the crash and its replay, but they zoomed in on the broken car and replayed the crash in slow motion so that viewers at home could see every single frame. Watching it, I just don’t know if NASCAR quite knew the severity of the crash and assumed this was like many other accidents, where drivers emerge shaken up and pissed off but physically okay, which means it’s totally fine to keep playing that accident over and over again.

That’s a bad call. It’s bad form. When a driver’s life is in question, this isn’t the time to get ahead of ourselves by showing the accident.

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When compounded with NASCAR’s decision to then air Hamlin’s celebrations and maintain the normal post-race procedures with victory circle confetti and driver interviews, it’s enough to leave a very bad taste in your mouth. Hamlin may not have known the severity of Newman’s condition, but there was no way anyone watching the broadcast, let alone NASCAR itself, didn’t know there had been a horrific wreck and a car on fire. And in this case, it wasn’t. It was not okay to interview Ryan Blaney, who had direct involvement in a usual wreck that soon went wrong. It was not okay to speculate. And yet it happened.

NASCAR does something that other racing series don’t. The series will allow a race to go into overtime if there's a yellow flag near the end of the event, pushing drivers to race flat-out for one two-lap shootout after another until drivers manage to take the white flag. If you watch racing, you know that cautions often cause other cautions. Going green encourages drivers to push hard on restarts, trying to scoop up coveted finishing positions. Late in a race, cars have often sustained some damage and drivers are more aggressive. It’s a recipe for disaster.

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And NASCAR encourages this kind of thing to take place over and over and over, with the spectacle of danger being marketed as the whole point of races like the Daytona 500. It’s the whole reason why this type of pack racing is still created by rules packages. If there isn’t a last-lap crash that wipes out half the field, it isn’t a good race. The entertainment machine will crank on as safety crews pick up the pieces of broken race cars, and no one thinks twice about the physical safety of the drivers. After all, they always get out of the car.

Except when they don’t, and we’re left to reckon with the gut-punch feeling that we not only just watched someone be mortally wounded, but we were also hoping it would happen.

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This isn’t necessary. Crashes aren’t what make racing exciting. Death and injury aren’t what makes racing alluring. We’ve all enjoyed races where half the field didn’t crash, where no one was hurt.

NASCAR will have plenty to contend with in the coming weeks regarding the technology of safety and the impact of its rule package. But it needs to look hard at itself and understand that the biggest problem stems from the normalization of unnecessary danger and the underlying culture of violence that lines the marketing of the sport as a whole. It’s time we stop romanticizing the brain-numbing brutality of motorsport and take these crashes for what they are: the product of an unhealthy mindset that stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what actually makes for good racing.

Staff writer. Motorsport fanatic. Proud owner of a 2013 Mazda 2.

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