It’s Daytona 500 morning, and I don’t feel like writing about racing.
I still love NASCAR. I’m going to watch on TV, and undoubtedly I’ll leave a stream of tweets and posts that will be alternately comic and informational. (Let me borrow a cliché: That’s the way I roll.)
I’m going to resist the temptation to wring my hands over “what could have happened” on Saturday at the end of Daytona International Speedway’s Nationwide Series race, which, oddly, was named after a medical condition. Twenty-eight, or 33, people, depending on what you read and how someone else defined “injured,” were hurt in that awful conflagration.
“Someone could have been killed!” No one was, and that’s really what matters. A week ago Monday, my mother and two nephews walked away (from the hospital, that is) after an awful crash in front of her house. A man who wasn’t paying attention slammed into their old Toyota, which was stopped to turn left into my mother’s yard. If someone had been killed, that fellow, who just made a costly mistake, would likely be going to jail. No one was killed, so he just had to go to his insurance agent. The world revolves around what actually happens, not what could have happened. I’m glad Mom, Jake and Vince are recovering, and I’m grateful the poor man didn’t get arrested, too.
I couldn’t help but remember Talladega Superspeedway in 2009, where eight fans were injured in a last-lap crash in which debris from Carl Edwards’ car “flew” into the stands. Two memories stand out.
On the morning of the race, I walked from the infield to the start-finish line, which, unlike most other tracks, is a quarter mile or so from the press box. As I paced along at the front of the stands, I looked up at the catch fence and thought, that thing looks mighty old and weathered.
It held. It did its job. The impact of Edwards’ car shredded the fence, but the car didn’t make it to the grandstands. On Saturday, Kyle Larson’s car shredded the fence at Daytona International Speedway, a similar track. If the fence’s job is defined as preventing horror (or, at least, death) while only sacrificing itself, it held again. In the aftermath of the 1999 incident, the catch fences at most tracks were strengthened. Now my guess is that they will be strengthened again. Saturday’s scary incident will lead to more studying, rethinking, redesigning and improving.
One fan, whose brother was injured seriously, called it “like a war zone,” and he apparently provided the phrase that was repeated over and over in spoken and written word.
The second distinct memory is from one of the injured fans at Talladega. A colleague, Rick Minter, and I walked down to the scene of the accident, where we encountered a man holding a large yellow spring from Edwards’ car that had hit him in the arm. He had the welts to prove it. His arm looked like a thunder cloud, though red was mixed with the steel blue.
The man asked me if I thought Edwards would sign the spring. I asked him if he would sit in that location in the future, and he said defiantly that he would. His words were, “Hey, that’s part OF it.”
When we returned to the press box, a statement was being distributed stating that no parts from Edwards’ car were found in the grandstands.
Technically, that was true. I saw one man rolling one of Edwards’ tires up the steps and out. I had seen the yellow spring. All the parts left the grandstand, a few probably headed to E-Bay.
No one ever decides to be a race driver without understanding, if not fully confronting, the reality that it’s a risky way to make a living. The fans are different. It’s tempting to say they didn’t sign up for it, but based on the small print on the tickets, in one sense, they did. In their case, the risk is much smaller but so, too, is the reward.
The difference between headlines and national news, and a horrible event that could question the entire future of the sport, is what happened, not what could have happened.
Saturday’s incident was a stern warning that more work needs to be done. Here’s hoping the next advance is more than “just enough.”
Maybe I’ll double up today and write another blog after the race. Here’s hoping it’s on a more appealing subject.