Fifteen years ago this month the world of NASCAR was rocked to its core by the death of racing legend Dale “The Intimidator” Earnhardt. Since that time, the sport’s governing body has taken some steps to improve driver safety. But some NASCAR pilots are saying the measures to date are not good enough.
The suggestions are specific, and they are coming from the top names in the sport. Multiple-time champion Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR’s reigning golden boy, wants to see the grass near the tracks replaced with asphalt, a request seconded by current Cup champion Kyle Busch.
Ryan Newman is looking out for his pit crews, asking NASCAR to install walls to better protect crews on pit row, while Austin Dillon wants more protection around his feet.
So, a list of very specific demands. What says NASCAR? Well, nothing really, at least not yet. They are still working on the plans set in motion after Earnhardt’s death. Since that time, head and neck restraints have been advanced, as well as six-point harnesses. “Soft wall technology” has been introduced.
The drivers appreciate the progress but want more. They have a strong point. From a public relations perspective, one of the key dynamics of auto racing is the inherent danger. These guys are going fast, wrapped in steel. When they wreck – and they will – damage occurs. Most of the time, thanks to improvements in safety, the driver more or less walks away. Sometimes, though, they don’t.
Wrecks in racing are every bit as ubiquitous as fighting in hockey. It’s going to happen, and, according to many in the “rubbing is racing” fan base, wrecks are something to be cheered. It gives fans a clear “good guy” versus “bad guy” dynamic as well, which some in the sport embrace fully.
Tony Stewart is one popular example of a NASCAR bad boy fans loved, and other fans loved to hate. He tapped right into that visceral something underneath all the glitz and advertising stickers. Racing is primal, power versus power and skill against skill. There’s always room for a little elbowing on the track.
Today’s top drivers are not shying away from that legacy, but they are demanding NASCAR do more to protect them as they give fans what they want to see.