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Feature Writing
Fourth Place
Nate Ryan, USA Today

Too Safe at Any Speed?

            DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Friday will mark a decade since NASCAR lost its greatest hero on the last lap of its biggest race. The death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500 helped spur a revolution of safety improvements that has resulted in 359 consecutive races without a fatal crash in stock car racing's top circuit, likely the safest decade in NASCAR history.
            But as the Sprint Cup Series returns to Daytona International Speedway for Sunday's marquee season opener, there's a growing chorus within NASCAR to focus not on what Earnhardt triggered in death but what he represented in life: a cantankerous, John Wayne-esque icon of hard-nosed racing who once told peers, "Get out of the race car if you've got feathers on your legs. Put a kerosene rag around your ankles so the ants won't climb up and eat that candy ass."
            After 10 years in which NASCAR has emphasized how safe its cars have become, many in the industry say the racing circuit – enduring a five-year slump in crowds and TV ratings and seeking a younger audience to replace its aging fan base – should remind its fans that those who drive in its races still risk life and limb every lap.
            "Race fans like that element of danger," New Hampshire Motor Speedway general manager Jerry Gappens says. "They don't want to see someone get hurt, but they like the ragged edge. I think we harped on safety because so much time and money was spent, but maybe it's time to put talking about it so much on the back burner. I tell people, you miss a putt for birdie, you tap in for par. In racing, you miss a turn, you could go to the hospital."
            No NASCAR driver has been killed since Earnhardt. None has missed a race because of injury in three seasons, since the debut of a bigger, boxier chassis (known as the Car of Tomorrow) that was designed to increase safety by better shielding a driver while blunting the impacts in crashes. But even with the advent of energy-absorbing walls around racetracks, head and neck restraint devices and carbon-fiber seats that cushion drivers during crashes, NASCAR subtly has begun trying to showcase its wilder side.
            It has loosened the reins on posting wreck photos on its website – the type of photos that virtually disappeared from its website after Earnhardt was killed. At last year's season-ending awards ceremony, NASCAR's public relations staff rolled out a crash-filled, vulgarity-laced video that trumpeted its "Boys, have at it" policy – under which drivers were told it was OK if they needed to exact a little revenge on competitors during races.
            Fox, which will broadcast the Daytona 500 and the first 13 of the 36 Sprint Cup races, will build on that vibe. In promoting the new season, Fox launched an ad campaign likening its viewers to thrill-seekers who enjoy stepping on exploding manhole covers. A prerace intro incorporating the  Dierks Bentley hit song "Sideways" will feature cars spinning and sliding on their roofs.
            "We're just looking to emphasize how brave these guys are," Fox analyst and three-time series champion Darrell Waltrip says. "We have to make the guy at home understand that."
            Fox Sports chairman David Hill says his network's theme for 2011 will channel  Ernest Hemingway's contention there were only three true sports: mountain climbing, bullfighting and auto racing (the rest, the author said, were games).
            And with Daytona's speedway sporting a fresh coat of lightning-fast asphalt after an embarrassing pothole debacle last year, Sunday could present many opportunities for drivers to be daredevils. Some drivers have reached speeds this week of 206 mph – the highest since carburetor restrictor plates were added to race cars 22 years ago, over the protestations of Earnhardt.
            "This sport is all about the driver; everything else is an afterthought," Hill says. "The Car of Tomorrow became the greatest red herring in the history of this sport. It took the emphasis away from the heroes. People follow because the drivers were heroes (who) drove at breakneck speeds and risked
death for glory."
            His approach seems to have support. NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston says, "The safety of our competitors and fans remains NASCAR's No. 1 priority. At the same time, NASCAR is a thrilling sport featuring the best drivers in the world, (and) Fox is right to highlight these daredevils and what they accomplish at every turn."
            Five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson is OK with such a marketing angle to create a buzz. "We all know there are a lot of people (who) come to watch a crash," he says.
            "As long as it's done tastefully, putting an emphasis on it is OK," says driver Carl Edwards, who finished fourth in last year's standings.
            But just like running inches apart in a pack of three dozen cars, such a strategy comes with peril for a sport that also must cater to the often politically correct whims of Corporate America. Title-contending teams' budgets are in the $20 million-$30 million range and mostly are funded by image-conscious Fortune 500 companies leery of the perception that they're backing a blood sport. (One of Edwards' sponsors issued a tacit apology after the driver intentionally spun Brad Keselowski into an airborne flip that became one of last year's signature highlights.)
            "They have to be careful they don't defang the tiger, because people are quite drawn to danger," says H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, a racing consultant and a former president of Charlotte Motor Speedway. "At the same time, horrific injury and death is a real turnoff to sponsors, TV and a significant part of the public."
            Some aren't convinced selling NASCAR as a death-defying endeavor is a panacea for the sport's sagging appeal.
            "I've never heard the reason fans pack (a speedway) is because we're daredevils. I always thought it was because we were beating and banging and tearing fenders up," says 1989 Cup champion Rusty Wallace, now an ESPN analyst. "I don't think we need to say the drivers who run this race might get killed. I'd hate to think that's how we get anyone to watch."

Delicate balance

            Despite its tightest championship battle in years last season, attendance dipped in 27 of 36 races and ratings fell 10% (20% during the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the 10-race finale to determine the title).
            The most alarming drop in NASCAR's popularity, though, was in the 18 to 34 demographic highly coveted by sponsors.
            Nielsen says the median age of NASCAR fans has risen to 51.6, compared with 46 for the NFL and 39.3 for the NBA. Perhaps the most telling sign of NASCAR's graying audience is four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon gaining a new primary sponsor in the AARP Foundation's Drive to End Hunger Campaign. Fox's NASCAR ratings fell 29% last year among viewers ages 18 to 34.
            In surveying why some 18-34 males were more engaged in the NFL than in NASCAR, Mike Boykin, executive vice president of sports marketing for GMR Marketing (which represents several NASCAR sponsors), was surprised many wanted racing to be edgier.
            "They were looking for it to be more dangerous," he says. "They viewed the safety things as a turnoff. They want the big hits in the NFL; they want the living-on-the-edge heroes that drivers have been."
            Seven-time series champion Richard Petty says NASCAR must gain two fans for each one it loses to continue growing and must cater to youth without relying on hand-me-down allegiances.
            "Used to be the younger generation just followed the older, but now there is so much competition from the X Games and motorcycles doing flips, so many more things for kids to look at," says Petty, 73. "When we push how safe the cars are, that turns them off to the daredevil part, so it's a delicate balance."
            After a youth movement last decade, the driver lineup also has aged, with all but one of last year's winners older than 30.
            Keselowski, at 26 the fourth-youngest full-timer in the Cup series, says, "The public perception of safety has perhaps been overwhelming, to our detriment. I don't know why we felt the need to publicize it. I think NASCAR has caught on to that the last year or two and done more things to make it safer without publicizing it." For example, improving communication with drivers, he says.
            The champion of last year's second-tier Nationwide Series is confident a driver will get hurt again within the next 10 years but says violence hasn't deterred enthusiasm for other sports.
            "Football by far is the leading sport in America, and you have to tie that all together and say, 'Injuries, danger, ratings, love affair,'" Keselowski says. "There's obviously a line: You can't have people killed on national TV. A lot of people will watch daredevils until one of us gets killed. Then they'll stop."
            NASCAR's popularity actually spiked after Earnhardt slammed into Daytona's Turn 4 wall Feb. 18, 2001. The mustached legend with an eighth-grade education from the mill town of Kannapolis, N.C., drew national attention in death partially because he'd seemed indestructible in surviving many wicked crashes during an era of far fewer safety precautions.
            When Petty began driving in 1958, his "fire suit" consisted of whatever he wore to the track and a seat belt. The first spate of deaths during the 1960s (killing early stars such as Joe Weatherly and Fireball Roberts) led to advances in safety harnesses, tires and fuel cells for fire protection.
            Even so, Waltrip thinks some of the appeal for drivers and fans was a fear factor, saying, "Our cars would kill you.
            "You kissed your wife goodbye and drove down pit road, looking in the mirror and waving, because there was always doubt that, 'If something goes wrong, I might not be back,'" he says. "Someone said one time if you've never scared yourself in a race car, you've never taken it to the limit."
            Until shortly before Earnhardt's death (Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr. and Tony Roper all were killed in crashes during the 2000 season, triggering urgency in research), safety "mostly was still in the stone age,"
says veteran Mark Martin, 52.
            There also was less inclination to be proactive because most advances resulted from crashes. "Safety never entered our mind," says Richard Petty, Adam's grandfather.
            And if it did, Wallace says, that wasn't necessarily a good thing.
            "People never talked about safety, because if you did, I always said it meant you were worried about getting hurt," he says. "I better stay out of the … car, because I'll be thinking about it all the time. If you talked about safety too much, the fans would call you a chicken. Just get (expletive) tough and drive that son of a bitch."

Safety revolution

            Attitudes changed permanently after Earnhardt's death, putting safety in the forefront of conversation as much as the racing. Installation of the Steel And Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barrier began at tracks in 2003, the same year NASCAR opened a $10 million research and development center in Concord, N.C., with twin goals of enhancing safety and competition.
            The next-generation chassis was designed to do both. But while improved crush zones and more secure cockpits have kept drivers safer, the car has not caught on with fans since its 2007 debut – partially because its standardization also wiped out manufacturer identity.
            But the new models also were more durable, which might have helped encourage drivers to take more risks. "If a driver knows he's in a safe car and feels comfortable, he can drive a hell of a lot harder," Wallace says.
            Wheeler, though, says it did not quite evoke the bravado and danger of yesteryear, partially because of worry of angering sponsors.
            Still, Edwards says an element of risk always is inherent.
            "When I (started) going to races, I was like, 'That's really, really neat, but that looks really, really scary, too,' " he says. "Part of what we're all trying to do is master that anxiety or fear. That's a neat part of the sport."