NASCAR's Safety Problem

>Even if you don't like sports, NASCAR's latest controversy isn't hard to follow. Last week at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Carl Edwards got mad at fellow driver Brad Keselowski. Edwards had wrecked earlier in the race and blamed Keselowski for it. To demonstrate his displeasure, Edwards used his hobbled car to hit Keselowski's from behind, sending Keselowski's car spinning and flipping down the frontstretch at just under 200 mph. Not only could Keselowski could have been seriously hurt or killed, debris easily could have flown into the crowd—as Edwards learned when his 2009 wreck at Talladega sent him into catchfence and several fans to the hospital.

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The incident quickly became the first test of NASCAR's new policy, expressed before the season, of giving drivers more leeway to self-police. Intended to create more exciting races, the change was a bit like Major League Baseball saying it's okay for pitchers to throw at batters who crowd the plate—just so long as no one gets hit in the head. NASCAR's problem was that Edwards threw a beanball. The wreck wasn't caused by two drivers bumping and banging during a race. Edwards was 156 laps down. His crippled car was only on track, it turned out, to get revenge.

NASCAR was in a bind. If they suspended Edwards, trashing his season, they'd look like hypocrites, infuriating hardcore fans and confusing drivers about what's allowed. Slap his wrist and they'd face public outcry for putting lives at risk. They decided to slap. In a move out of the Dean Wormer playbook, Edwards was given a-three-race "probation." No suspension. No fine. No loss of points. If it were a traffic stop, he would have been let off with a warning.

What's interesting from a cultural perspective, though, isn't NASCAR's return to self-policing—not unless you study group dynamics. What's fascinating is the reaction to it. When the decision came down, mainstream sports media erupted. An AOL FanHouse columnist declared that Edwards should be in jail and accused NASCAR of complicity in his crimes. Professional irritant Jay Mariotti on ESPN's Around the Horn called for a federal investigation. If Congress can probe baseball's drug problems, Mariotti reasoned, they certainly should investigate the dangers of stock cars.

Somewhere in Washington D.C., a bunch of lawyers must have smiled.

To get a sense of the profound change this reaction represents in how Americans think, consider that the most basic of safety devices, the lap belt, wasn't even required on US cars before the Highway Safety Act of 1966. Within ten years, shoulder belts were required standard features. Within 20, states were passing mandatory belt laws. The history of motorcycle helmet laws is much more contentious, but follows the same basic trend—we have become far more willing to let governments protect us from ourselves. A sportswriter in the 1960s, for instance, who suggested that one NASCAR driver wrecking another was grounds for assault charges and a Federal investigation into the sport would have been considered insane. Today, he's mainstream.

Obviously, seat belts and helmets are good things and have saved countless lives. But there is something disquieting about laws against activities that harm no one other than the one doing them. Let's put it this way: if you are dumb enough to drive a car without a seat belt or ride a motorcycle with no helmet, you deserve whatever what you get. In NASCAR, though, protecting people from their own decisions isn't disquieting. It's impossible—at least not without fundamentally altering the nature of the sport.

The NFL is facing a different version of the same problem. Being more careful about concussions, for instance, is admirable. But ultimately the idea of physical safety and football are at odds. Seeing athletes overcome pain and sacrifice their bodies for the team is an essential part of the game's appeal. If NFL football could somehow be made injury-free—with helmets so big concussions weren't possible and body armor so thick tackles didn't hurt—would it still be worth watching? Simply put: football without pain isn't really football at all.

Racing faces the same dilemma. No one likes seeing drivers seriously hurt or killed, and stunning advances in safety like the shock-absorbing SAFER barrier walls have made those disasters increasingly rare. But just as football has its famous distinction between pain and injury, racing has to distinguish between preventing death and eliminating risk. Somewhere in our quest to make everyone safe from everything, we lost sight of an absurdly simple fact—one that would have been obvious beyond words to anyone in 1966, but today has become an unspeakable truth. Danger is a part of what makes racing fun. Drivers race and we watch because there are huge risks and huge rewards. If there was absolutely no threat of anything bad happening, ever, no one would bother. Ultimately, even if driving a racecar at 200+ mph could be made completely safe, it probably shouldn't be.

As for those supposedly victimized fans who "could have been" injured when Edwards wrecked Keselowski, they bought tickets precisely so they could feel the rush of 40 cars hurtling by—just a small taste of the dangers that drivers face all the time. Some infinitesimal risk of injury would seem to come with the seat, just as baseball fans are warned to beware of flying bats and balls. Otherwise you might as well stay home and watch on TV.