NASCAR/International Speedway Corp. must do more to prevent a spectator tragedy

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Along with the recent trend of reduced attendance, ticket revenue and television ratings, NASCAR has another more fundamental issue to address. Sunday night’s/Monday morning’s Coke Zero 400 ended at 2:41 a.m. with the 88 car of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in Victory Lane and what was left of the number 3 car of Austin Dillon resting on its roof after a horrific crash at the Daytona International Speedway. Spectators were hit with flying parts.

The first set of issues involves boardroom business and marketing strategy affecting the bottom line. The latter gets to the core issue of automobile racing: driver and paying customer safety.

While Dillon’s wild ride is still the exception in NASCAR rather than the rule, it is happening often enough to draw concern. Racing is a dangerous sport and the drivers accept that risk. The spectators are on the other side of the wall and should not have to worry about their safety.

On the positive side, safety improvements involving softer wall barriers, driver fire suits and head and neck restraining devices have made driving stock cars safer than ever before. The last driver to lose his life on the track in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup (or Nationwide) Series was Dale Earnhardt, Sr. at Daytona in 2001.

To further illustrate the driver safety aspect of these cars, one need only see Dillon walking away from this week’s crash with only a couple of sore spots. By comparison, we remember the tragedy involving St. Petersburg resident Dan Wheldon in 2011.

Wheldon, the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, was in a pack of open-cockpit cars before becoming airborne and flying into the catch fence at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He died almost instantly.

Five spectators received non-serious injuries this week at Daytona. Two years ago, Kyle Larson went hard into the catch fence at the conclusion of a Nationwide Series race in Daytona. His engine became embedded in the fence and 28 spectators were injured from debris, some seriously.

The danger of flying race cars is limited mainly to the Daytona International Speedway and the Talladega (Alabama) Superspeedway. With the 31-33-degree high banks of these tracks, the speed increased over time to unsafe levels.

To reduce speed, NASCAR put restrictions on the air intake (restrictor plates) to slow them down in the 1980s, but the result was lap-after-lap of cars running in packs. Unable to spread out, drivers circle the track by drafting with other cars and jockey for position, especially in the later stages of a race.

As NASCAR fans know, one wrong move triggers the “Big One,” where multiple cars crash into the walls and each other. This week we saw the worst kind of Big One.

This is not what racing should be about. After winning one of his 10 races at Talladega, Earnhardt, Sr. once told an interviewer in Victory Lane that he was happy about winning, “but this ain’t racing.”

I wish I had a good suggestion for the NASCAR brain trust. They have artificially slowed the cars down, which is a good thing, but something needs to be done to spread them out.

Since it’s not my money, I can always suggest a multimillion- dollar project dedicated to lowering the banking on turns at the super speedways. With this, the restrictor plates could be removed, the cars would spread out and real racing — the kind envisioned by Earnhardt – could return.

Florida-based International Speedway Corp. owns and operates both tracks, along with 11 others around the country. Safety at Talladega and Daytona must become a top priority.

To their credit, Daytona officials moved the spectators back a few feet, but the sight of debris spewing into the stands from Dillon’s car shows fans are still in a danger zone. The ultimate answer is to keep the cars on the track and out of the fence.

“I’m really proud of the fact that the fence worked,” said Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood III. “We will take this situation, we will learn from it; we will analyze it.”

Chitwood should analyze this: It is only a matter of time before tragedy visits the trackside grandstands at a super speedway. When that happens, a different type of marketing problem will present itself.

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.