Do we really need to go over this? Are you sure we have to talk about this again? Seriously? Apparently we do. So, let me say this one more time, loud, for the people in the back: implying that ticket sales are down at racing events because drivers aren’t dying with alarming frequency anymore is an incredibly bad and very irresponsible take.
This has come straight out of Robin Miller’s mailbag for October 16 (the day Dan Wheldon died, no less). In response to a “question” (it’s really more a statement) about how the focus on safety will completely sanitize racing, Miller had the following response (emphasis mine):
Well stated Dan, you sound like the old drivers from the ’60s and ’70s I have lunch with every Friday. The attraction of IndyCar racing has always been speed and danger, and the fact it can be a ruthless and cruel sport that’s only for a chosen few. Nobody makes anyone do it, and they all understand the consequences. But what’s happened in the past 20 years is that the SAFER Barrier and HANS device expedited safety and made racing sanctioning bodies push for stouter cars and cockpits – while making tracks address runoffs and fences. Today’s drivers are plenty brave going into Turn 1 at Indy at 225 mph, but they’ve been conditioned to think more about safety than their predecessors. I don’t think they would have boycotted if IndyCar hadn’t come up with an aeroscreen and I’m not convinced IndyCar needed to make it a priority but it was the right thing to do for today’s sensitivities. A.J., Parnelli, Mario, J.R. and the Unsers never thought about safety because nobody would have listened anyway. But they were too busy trying to beat each other to give it much thought. It’s just a different generation and a different mindset, but it doesn’t mean the racing isn’t good and fierce – it’s just not as lethal. And that’s great for the drivers, but probably not as good for the box office.
You don’t have to reach very far into that statement to see the view seems to be that the occasional death every now and then is necessary to keep people watching motorsports. Not great!
To claim that the great drivers of the past “never thought about safety” seems egregious in an era when those drivers were burying their friends and rivals every few months. Many drivers have spoken of the emotional dissociation necessary to get behind the wheel of the car after a fellow driver was killed on track.
As Judith Herman writes in her landmark book Trauma and Recovery, “The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud.” Just because it isn’t at the forefront of your mind doesn’t mean it’s not impacting you.
But it’s extremely unlikely that those drivers didn’t ever consider what racing would be like if things were just a little bit safer. And it’s likely because of those safety improvements that those drivers are still with us today.
“But really—look at the span of my career, and it’s something people dream about,” Mario Andretti reminisced in Car and Driver. “And to be spared major injury: I had some moments along the way, but being able to retire on my own terms after having driven during those decades when safety conditions were more precarious than today—am I lucky, or what?”
He is lucky. Andretti has been winning championships since the ’60s, and he still gets behind the wheel of the IndyCar two-seater to give fans a lap around the track during plenty of race weekends. In fact, Andretti benefitted from the significant changes and upgrades made to cars and tracks in the name of safety. For example, he was present at the 1970 German Grand Prix that took place at Hockenheim after the Nürburgring was deemed too dangerous and boycotted by the Grand Prix Drivers Association. It was very likely that safety considerations were on the forefront of his mind—it just didn’t make you particularly popular to talk about it.
It’s even more absurd to claim that deadly races are a great boost for the box office. NASCAR ticket sales and general television views have steadily declined since the death of Dale Earnhardt, the Washington Post reported. IndyCar attendance was facing a similar decline in that era, something that The New York Times predicted would be exacerbated by the death of fan-favorite Dan Wheldon (indeed, Indy Star pinpointed Wheldon’s death as one of the most recent markers of unrest regarding the series as a whole).
The pain Ayrton Senna’s death in F1, mourned by millions of fans around the world, was mitigated only marginally by the swift improvements in safety implemented immediately after Imola. Even then, Imola’s name will be forever tarnished by the tragedy that took place there that weekend; the San Marino Grand Prix never quite recovered.
Safety isn’t a matter of generational “sensitivities.” Ignoring it is just straight-up bad for business.
Fans that were estranged from racing after significant deaths have been followed by those who just feel racing is too “boring” now. Boredom is often cited as being composed of predictable races, complicated rulebooks, overzealous stewards, dull drivers, economically stratified team hierarchies, and the prizing of money over talent.
These are problems that could be solved in the rulebook or in a reformulation of attitudes toward money. I’ll admit, the racing product can definitely get a little stale when no new drivers are entering the sport—but that’s a question of economics, not lethality. The solution to that problem is not killing off drivers to make way for new talent that will shake things up. More competitive teams and races—not more deaths—is the way to go. To claim otherwise is to do so in ignorance of the past and of the true nature of current complaints.
And, honestly, do we really need to go back and remind everyone that plenty of old races were boring as hell? There were plenty of great racing moments, but we all seem to remember those and not the countless other races where less than half the field would finish on the lead lap if they finished at all, or where one dominant driver just lapped the field over and over. Racing back in the ’60s and ’70s wasn’t as spectacular as some talking heads like to make it sound.
Where there is change in racing, so there will be backlash. Let us not forget the number one reason that Jochen Rindt gave in his angry tirade of a letter to legendary designer Colin Chapman as to his anti-rear wing stance: “Wings have nothing to do with a motor car.”
That sounds just like the main arguments behind improved safety today.