Ingram: Thanks For a Happy Ending At Daytona
By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
Daytona Beach, Fla. – From the Monday Morning Crew Chief™:
The night before the Daytona 500, I met with Tommy Byrne to talk about the American release of his book, “Crashed and Byrned” at one of the watering holes in Ormand Beach. As always, the Irishman, a retired driver who now makes his living as a driving instructor, was good company. Of all things, we ended up talking about crashing.
By happenstance, while eating at the bar, we happened to meet an ex-Marine who more or less described himself as a former NASCAR fan. Alan was in his mid-60s and said he no longer kept up with NASCAR racing due to the arrival of more safety – for both the drivers and the fans. “I believe that getting hurt is part of the risk you take,” he said about his days of attending races. And, he was talking about fans as well as drivers!
Alan’s comment in some ways sums up “the crossover swap” that is taking place in NASCAR’s fan base. The older fans who identified with the risk of racing are no longer as interested – either in terms of waching on TV or from the grandstands. That identification was literal. Not only could drivers get killed, there was always the remote possibility fans could get injured or killed as well.
If that seems a bit stunning, an excellent article in USA Today by writer Nate Ryan explored this issue from the point of view of how NASCAR is marketing itself these days. Titled “Too Safe At Any Speed?” the article in effect posed the same questioned raised by our former-fan friend. Has the evolution of safer racing been one of the main roots of the downturn in the popularity of NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup Series?
Just as drivers are now doing a “crossover swap” on the banking at Daytona due to tandem
type racing, NASCAR is trying to swap out the older generation of fans for a new one, starting with the all-important young beta of the 18-24 age group. With the “Have at it” slogan introduced last year, NASCAR officials have turned drivers loose in terms of behavior in the cars or out. It’s the kind of policy that led to the dangerous liftoff and crash of Brad Keselowski in Atlanta last year after retaliation from Carl Edwards.
Ironically, this edgier style of racing is dependent upon the safer cars, cockpits and SAFER Barriers now employed following the safety revolution that began with the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. A further irony is the fact the COT chassis has turned off a lot of veteran fans due to the reduction of manufacturer identity of the standardized cars. The final irony? The COT has led us to tandem type racing, potentially one of the more dangerous evolutions of stock car racing in the sport’s history.
The key element when it comes to safety is keeping speeds in check. It didn’t happen in the Budweiser Shootout, but NASCAR officials made the necessary changes prior to the 500. The other issue concerns driver choices about retaliation and safe overtaking maneuvers. These latter two issues will always be on the table, which now makes the Sprint Cup edgy enough and not entirely safe.
Denny Hamlin took his lumps for not pushing the issue at the finish of the Shootout when it came to a possibly dangerous pass. In other words, he looked like he might have been scared. From the long lens view, assuming Hamlin really did take himself out of bounds below the yellow line out of safety concerns, he made the right decision.
I like the tandem type racing as long as the speeds are kept in check. It’s a mental, physical and
emotional challenge for the drivers. It creates a kaleidescope of possibilities for the fans. And, there were a lot of lead changes under green in the Daytona 500 before Trevor Bayne won it for the Wood Brothers. Needless to say, in a Daytona 500 including Andy Lally and Brian Keselowski that was won by 20-year-old Bayne, there’s an everyman aspect to this style of racing as well.
For me, this year’s race on the newly repaved high banks has brought NASCAR’s premier series to the right blend of physical and mental challenge that’s apparent to just about anybody who takes the time to watch. Tandem racing may be different, which always turns off some fans initially, but it’s the natural evolution of the slingshot, the side draft and the bump draft.
This year’s 500 was close to a sell-out and it was clear nary a soul left early to beat the traffic in order to see how the high-speed two-car traffic played out on the track. I’ll leave the story of one of NASCAR’s oldest teams returning to victory lane with the Sprint Cup’s youngest new star to others who want to pursue the marketing angle. In any event, it was one helluva finish, one that produced a lot of excitement in the media as well as the grandstands.
After our conversation on Saturday night, I decided to talk to some of the fans in the stands at Daytona prior to the race on Sunday on the subject of driver and fan safety. One fan named Scott told me, “I don’t care if something comes over the fence and hits me in the head. They still won’t be able to keep me away!”
Until something goes horrifically wrong in the grandstands, that’s the operative fantasy of many fans. They’re taking a risk along with the drivers and that’s the ride they enjoy. At the same time, they anticipate walking out of the stands just as they anticipate seeing drivers walk away from their cars after bad crashes. Despite profoundly sad events in Turn 4 at Daytona ten years ago, fans may imagine they can handle a less than happy ending along these lines. It’s a form of fantasy that NASCAR and its drivers should never buy into.
– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments