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NASCAR’s next safety priority: fans

Twelve years ago, in the weeks after Dale Earnhardt died at Daytona International Speedway, NASCAR was forced to take a hard look inward. Its biggest star had been killed in its biggest race, and three other drivers had died in the previous year alone in stock car racing’s top divisions. Prodded in part by public outcry – including a Charlotte Observer investigation that found 22 deaths a year at U.S. auto races big and small – NASCAR finally embarked on its first comprehensive exploration of safety issues.

It has worked, mostly. Since Earnhardt’s death, NASCAR has mandated head-and-neck restraints for drivers, installed safer walls at tracks and designed cars to be less crushable. The organization pours money into a Research & Development Center, located in Concord, which has helped NASCAR move from a reactive safety culture to one that tries harder to get ahead of tragedy. The result: No driver has died in the racing body’s top divisions in the years since Earnhardt’s death.

It’s time for NASCAR to take the same care with its fans.

A week ago, another violent crash at Daytona illustrated just how far the sport has come with safety – and how much is left to accomplish. During a race in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series – the level below its top division – rookie Kyle Larson’s car was knocked airborne and into a catch fence in a 12-car wreck. Larson, incredibly, walked away, but 28 fans were injured as the car’s engine and other parts flew scattershot into the grandstand. Two were hurt critically but are recovering.

It wasn’t, as some in racing are fond of saying, a “freak deal.” Between 1990 and 2010, at least 46 spectators have died at U.S. racetracks, with dozens more seriously injured, according to an Observer analysis. Most of the deaths occur at smaller tracks and off-road courses, but at least six have died at large tracks, and the number could easily be higher. Three years ago, seven fans at Talladega Superspeedway were injured when Carl Edwards’ car flew frighteningly into a fence.

Many of NASCAR’s larger tracks have raised the height of their fences in recent years, but in the Observer’s investigation 12 years ago, experts offered additional ways the sport could protect spectators. The recommendations included moving fans farther from the track, along with conducting more research into how to improve those fences that surround racing ovals.

Last Tuesday, NASCAR’s senior vice president of racing operations, Steve O’Donnell, told the Observer that the racing body had launched a far-reaching investigation into fencing and the circumstances involving last month’s Daytona crash. NASCAR’s Research & Development Center will help with the review, and safety specialists outside of NASCAR will be asked to participate.

It’s the same approach that led to dramatic safety improvements for drivers in NASCAR’s top divisions, and those safety measures have trickled down to smaller, local tracks. We hope a similar follow-through can happen with this new initiative. Racing has long been a tug between power and safety, danger and money. But NASCAR has shown it can find a balance between the best and worst of its sport, and it has become a racing industry leader with its commitment to protecting drivers. The people who pay to watch them deserve the same.

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