For the first time ever, the Daytona 500 was run under the lights in primetime on Monday night, with the sudden potential for attracting new fans and showcasing some of the best racing in the world in the sport’s biggest event.
Instead, NASCAR’s prime time debut will forever be remembered as the night the jet drier exploded after getting slammed by a race car.
I love NASCAR racing, I really do. But last night set the sport back in the wrong direction on so many levels it’s mind-boggling. Who can blame anyone for considering NASCAR to be a backwoods, redneck phenomenon with nothing interesting beyond the crash highlights on SportsCenter when the most memorable moments of the biggest race of the year involved a gigantic fireball, a forklift, and a garden tractor trying to blow away kitty litter and tide detergent as officials desperately tried to clean the track up during a two-hour delay for a freak accident that, in all honesty, should never have happened.
Worse than that, the on-track action barely managed to live up to any standard of good racing. For the most part, the 2012 rules created follow-the-leader racing where drivers never really tried to pass, preferring instead to ride around until the end. As the race neared its end and the racers actually started racing each other, the results invariably ended with a wad of wrecked cars. Very little passing, very little entertainment. And the majority of the blame falls squarely on a rules package that created highly unstable cars, with vestigial regulations dating back twelve years designed for a different car and a different style of racing altogether.
The problem with the rules became apparent early in practice sessions leading up to the Daytona 500. During the off season, NASCAR had worked diligently to create a new aerodynamic package designed to make the racing more exciting. All that hard work seemed to pay off except for one small thing—a tap on the left side of the back bumper would send a car spinning out of control. During the pre-season exhibition event, it became apparent that the slightest of bumper contact resulted in a big deal.
NASCAR’s solution was to tell the drivers not to bump each other.
With a week to work with teams on minimizing this gaffe through mechanical modifications to the cars, NASCAR instead chose to continue telling the drivers not to bump each other.
Most critics of auto racing, particularly NASCAR, are of the misinformed impression that the vehicles they see circling the track lap after lap drive identically to the cars they drive on the street day after day. In reality, professional race cars drive nothing like street cars, and the most common comparison newbies make is that race cars drive like street cars on ice. At tripple-digit speeds.
Years ago, when I first started watching NASCAR, I immediately saw in the sport this strange synchronically between man an machine, between driver and crew, between car and asphalt. I fell in love with racing while watching this black Chevrolet Lumina slice through traffic like it was trying to outrun the flames of hell itself.
The driver of that car was, of course, Dale Earnhardt, who died on live TV during the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001, the first event broadcast under a new television package that was designed to launch NASCAR into the mainstream of the sports world. Instead, that race—and that day—launched NASCAR into a decade-long process of redesigning the cars (for a few years, they put wings on the trunk) and retraining driver attitudes about safety. In the meantime, ratings slipped, and longtime fans of the sport walked away in droves because the NASCAR they saw after Earnhardt’s death wasn’t the same as the NASCAR they loved before.
A couple of years ago, NASCAR started making more changes, this time trying to make the racing in this new era NASCAR more like the old era of NASCAR, and for the most part, they succeeded. By making the cars look more like fans remembered, and by reengineering these safer cars to race more closely and competitively, NASCAR created an on-track entertainment package unrivaled in the motorsports world.
Last night, that should have been on display for the world to see. Instead, the five-time champion Jimmie Johnson—arguably the greatest driver of the decade—was taken out of the race in the first lap after being bumped, and the ensuing wreck also tok with it Danica Patrik, who—for reasons beyond my comprehension—has been heralded as the best thing to ever happen to NASCAR despite the fact that last night was her first top-level NASCAR race. Casual observers saw a lot of parade laps, cars circling the track at reduced speed, and of course, Juan Pablo Montoya spinning wildly out of control and crashing into a jet engine.
What the world didn’t see was the drama of NASCAR played out in its biggest race, with pit strategy and teamwork, the drama of balancing the need for speed with the overall longevity of the car, the mystery of watching masters of the draft weave in and out of traffic as they work their way to the front of the field.
Two years ago, the Daytona 500 was halted for hours by a pothole in the track. NASCAR responded by repaving the track. I suspect this year, after watching Montoya careen into a safety truck, NASCAR will enact rules requiring vehicles to slow down around safety equipment and personel. But the bigger issue—the bigger question—is whether NASCAR will address the fundamental problem with this year’s Daytona 500.
The problem is NASCAR itself.
NASCAR is notoriously slow to react to problems.
The tragedy of Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001 wasn’t that the sport’s biggest star died in the sport’s biggest race after a career resurgence that had propelled the sport itself to heights of popularity never before dreamed. The real tragedy is that Earnhardt was the fourth driver in nine months to die, and NASCAR did nothing—no grand investigation, no commissioned studies to improve safety. It wasn’t until the national spotlight was shined upon them that NASCAR took safety seriously. All through Speedweeks 2012, drivers routinely walked away from crashes that looked fatal, a testament to NASCAR’s commitment to safety and the progress they’ve made in the last decade.
Will last night, with the unexpected prime-time audience, be the catalyst for NASCAR to look into its problems with competition? Will they finally re-examine the rules and fix the problems that make NASCAR so inaccessible to outsiders? Or will they continue to insist that the racing we saw last night was the greatest competition package they could come up with?