Watching Saturday’s crash at the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytona that injured at least 24 spectators brought back some frightful memories. In 2011, at the IndyCar race in Las Vegas, I was involved in a 15-car pile-up that took the life of my friend Dan Wheldon. Racing is dangerous, and as a driver, we acknowledge and accept the risks. Despite the legalese on the back of the tickets, the fans should not face the same risks. This shouldn’t have happened.
Race car drivers disengage the part of the brain that dictates fear. It’s a unique ability, and impossible to comprehend. In many ways, it’s a product of naivety, believing that bad things simply won’t happen. I certainly felt like that, and even to this day, after the horrendous accident in Vegas, don’t fully grasp how lucky I was.
That naivety, the detachment from reality, is what will allow today’s Daytona 500 drivers — many of whom were involved in yesterday’s carnage — to race like nothing happened.
But let’s not pretend racecar drivers are an emotionless, impassive bunch. Situations like this affect us all. No matter our fearlessness, prior to this year’s 500, the drivers will kiss their wives that little bit longer, and squeeze their children that little bit tighter. The risks are more prominent, and the drivers, once again, choose to accept them.
I had a big accident during practice for the 2008 Indianapolis 500. I entered turn one at 234 mph when the rear-end snapped, and in an instant, I was headed backwards towards the wall. You hear people say how, when in dire situations, time stands still. And they’re right. I had time to think about why this was happening, how badly the car would be damaged, and how much this was going to hurt.
When you hit the wall that hard, it feels as if all the life has been sucked from your body. The world goes quiet, and your mind, like the car, grinds to an abrupt halt. It takes a minute or two before the sense of life seeps back into your veins.
That incident left me serving three days of sheet time in the hospital, and getting back behind the wheel was hard. But it’s what supports your family, so you accept the risks and carry on. When it’s your livelihood on the line you can do that; you detach from reality, close your visor, and get to work.
But that doesn’t apply to the fans involved in yesterday’s horrendous accident. If you’ve seen the footage taken by the spectator situated just feet from where the tire landed in the grandstands, you’ll notice the normality of the lead up. The fans were on their feet, cheering their favorite drivers, blissfully unaware of the horror that would ensue.
Unquestionably, the fans could not have envisaged the devastation, but could NASCAR have been better prepared? Concerns about catch fencing have been prevalent for some time, spearheaded by Wheldon’s death in Las Vegas. As the safety of the cars, walls, equipment and regulations improve, fencing advancements remain slow.
Thick Plexiglas walls have been suggested, but material strong enough to withstand a 200-mph bullet, weighing 4,000 lbs., could cost an overwhelming amount. Ensuring every major venue switch to a product like this — if there is such a product —is, at this moment, unfeasible. NASCAR limits the speeds of its cars to minimize crash risks, but as Saturday’s wreck shows, even at slower speeds tires and debris can penetrate today’s cable-reinforced fencing.
But something has to be done. If we can’t find a solution for accidents like the Wheldon case, where the fence post fatally struck him to the head, then we must ensure a system that, at the very least, protects the spectators. NASCAR takes a lot of criticism for sticking to tradition too closely, but its race teams have as much engineering expertise as any in the world. Racing is about finding solution to challenges, and there’s no tradition that should keep fans from better, smarter protection.
Alex Lloyd has raced the Indianapolis 500 four times, and was the IndyCar rookie of the year in 2010. He’s been racing competitively since age 8.