Why won’t NASCAR learn from INDYCAR’s mistake?

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on October 9, 2012 8:21 am
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It’s rare that we comment on NASCAR-related subjects on these pages. As an INDYCAR news website, any given topic relating to closed-cockpit cars needs to relate back to open-wheel racing quite clearly before we’re comfortable covering it here.

However, the most current discussion of the dangers of pack racing in NASCAR would benefit from an INDYCAR perspective far more than any other in recent memory.

The last-lap wreck at Talladega that affected 25 cars and sent Tony Stewart hurtling through the air was yet another demonstration of the deeply inherent problems with restrictor plate racing.

Once again, NASCAR got away with it and everyone walked away. And once again, the fact that they did was luck — nothing more.

Restrictor plate racing might look exciting on TV, but from the driver’s perspective, there’s little skill involved. It’s a pedal-mashing lottery. They strap in, put their right feet to the floor, and just get jostled around in the pack for miles on end hoping they get through. Passing isn’t so much something a matter of initiative as waiting for someone else to make a mistake.

And when things go wrong, the penalty can be very, very steep.

Relatively few people within the ranks of NASCAR seem willing to point out the obvious, so perhaps it’s time for some sense to come from another angle.

It took the death of Dan Wheldon to convince many people within INDYCAR that pack racing is dangerous, backward, and wrong.

Those are heavy words. Reflect on them for a moment.

Now, consider this: before Wheldon’s death, sanctioning bodies could get away with endorsing pack racing because the concept that it was dangerous was only a theory with no palpable evidence to support it.

In the world that exists after, though, to carry on pack racing like nothing happened — in any form of motorsport, not just INDYCAR — is sickeningly ignorant and completely unacceptable.

Here’s a list of the excuses that will pour out of the NASCAR camp for continuing with restrictor plate racing, along with the reasons why every one of them is wrong.

- INDYCAR racing is inherently more dangerous than Cup racing. This is the classic “it happens to other people but it won’t happen to us” mentality that’s one of the more unfortunate traits of human nature. Yes, it’s true that open-wheel cars are more dangerous in general, but NASCAR is still dangerous. No one has died in a Cup car since Dale Earnhardt, but it’s still very likely to happen again someday. Racing is by its base nature an extremely risky sport. People who take the relative safety of today’s equipment and tracks for granted are kidding themselves. And continuing to race in a way that’s now been demonstrated to greatly increase the inherent risk is mind-bogglingly irresponsible.

- There haven’t been any problems with restrictor plate racing up until now, so it’s possible there never will be. INDYCAR got away with pack racing for many years, too. Take it from any INDYCAR fan: It only takes one incident to bring your entire world crashing down around you.

- It’s what our fans want. It’s a very sad situation for NASCAR that it’s built its entire brand around giving a home to the we-watch-racing-for-the-crashes crowd. For some reason, it’s become okay in NASCAR circles to ignore that there are living, breathing human beings driving these cars — sons, husbands, fathers — and watch solely for the purpose of waiting for them to risk injury or worse for the entertainment of others. That culture is a big part of what sells tickets and sponsorships, and it’s economically impossible for NASCAR to ignore. But the second a popular driver loses his life at Talladega or Daytona, that culture will unravel so fast that the sport may not be able to recover. With the right strategy, NASCAR has the opportunity to educate its fans and take baby steps toward the changes needed to minimize this culture and create an environment that could allow restrictor plate racing to go away. It would be a difficult road, but it would be one far easier to control than dealing with The Big One bringing the whole machine screeching to a halt (quite literally).

In 2012, INDYCAR admitted that pack racing is the wrong direction for the sport, learned many lessons from Dan Wheldon’s passing, and made changes to its formula and policies to put racing back into the hands of its drivers and create a better on-track product than the motorsport world has seen in years.

The onus is now on NASCAR to do the same for itself ideally before losing one of its popular drivers in the process.

If NASCAR could ever swallow their pride and pay attention to the world outside their own walls, everyone within the sport would come away a winner.

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