Automobile racing, be it Formula One, IndyCar or NASCAR, tries impossibly for equilibrium between speed and safety. To make the sport as safe as, say, football, it would have to be something akin to 40 mph bumper-cars. Few people would pay to watch it.
But if stock cars become any more dangerous than the one that Austin Dillon recently crashed at Daytona, they could be banned from prime-time television as too violent for children to see.
It was a good thing for NASCAR that Dillon’s smashup in the Coke Zero 400 occurred well past midnight, thanks to rain interruption. Most of America was asleep when this live event almost – some would say should have – brought death.
Dillon’s extensively redesigned “Chevrolet” collided with other cars and went airborne. It landed on its roof, with its engine landing somewhere else. As a final touch, the car was then rammed by one driven by Brad Keselowski.
For a half minute fans and drivers wondered if Dillon could possibly be alive. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who would win the race, doubted. He said he “almost cried.”
Somehow the 25-year-old Dillon walked away from the carnage, waving to the crowd.
“The way the racing is set up,” Dillon later said, “it brings these kinds of wrecks.”
So what can be done? Jimmie Johnson, who’s one of the most intelligent and scientific-minded of drivers, said, “Keeping the cars on the ground and slowing us down would be the only way to do it.”
And that may be happening. The Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday was the first to run with a new lower-downforce package recommended by a newly formed drivers council. The results were encouraging: a fast, competitive, safe race which was won by Kyle Busch.
Denny Hamlin, who finished third, said, “This is what race car driving is all about. I feel now it’s back in the driver and crew chief’s hands to get the car handling like it’s supposed to.”
What Hamlin, Dillon and other drivers do not like is what’s known as restrictor-plate racing. A restrictor plate is a thin aluminum square with four holes (half-inch to an inch in diameter) drilled into it. The plate is inserted between the carburetor and intake manifold to restrict the flow of air and fuel into the combustion chamber, thus reducing horsepower and speed.
While the restrictor plate is billed as a safety measure, many drivers believe there would be fewer wrecks if the fast cars were allowed to pull away — more often one by one instead of three by three.
Restrictor plates are used only at the superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega. Dillon prefers the slightly wider Talladega, but that track’s safety record is hardly one NASCAR cares to brag about.
The restrictor plates make the slower cars almost equal to the faster ones. The result is a bunched field and more likelihood of collisions by 3,200-pound vehicles “slowed” by 10-15 mph to 210. Winning that type of race depends less on speed than on fuel economy.
Although NASCAR officials will not admit it, they manipulate the rules to assure close competition. An abundance of “phantom yellows” keep a race from turning into a runaway by the fastest car.
So now the investigation goes on. Dillon’s car was hauled to the NASCAR Research and Development Center. There will be more study of the catch-fence that towers above the track. It prevented any cars from entering the stands but did not toss back all the debris. Five fans were injured, though none seriously.
Had the crash occurred before most of the spectators had departed, there surely would have been more injuries.
The drivers are encouraged that the new aerodynamics, which will be introduced at other tracks, will make the sport safer. But as Johnson noted, “There’s no guarantees.”
Recall the 2013 Daytona 500, when Kyle Larson crashed and a tire flew into the upper grandstand, injuring fans.
This will never be a safe game. Which is its central appeal. The speed and life-and-death drama are unmatched by other sports.
But let’s not forget that NASCAR inevitably brings more safety to our highways. Imagine if the cars we drive on interstates had one fourth of the safety features that saved Austin Dillon’s life.
Click here for YouTube video of Austin Dillon’s crash at Daytona.