Debates and lawsuits over safety have become routine headlines (and headaches) for NASCAR. As millions of fans prepare to make the trip to Florida for this year’s Daytona 500, legal issues, controversies, and questions continue to concern both drivers and spectators.
Driver safety, competitive parity, and restrictor plates
Even casual fans of racing are familiar with the HANS (head and neck support) device that was mandated following the 2011 death of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt at Daytona. In detailing the development of the safety measure, NASCAR said that “officials decided that driver safety was more important than preference.”
Efforts to slow down drivers and to make the sport more competitive, via restrictor plates, are at odds with that decision, some argue. The super-speedways of Daytona and Talladega require teams to install perforated plates on the car engine’s intake to lower maximum speed. Tracks in Indianapolis, Michigan, and Pocono are among others either using or researching restrictor plates.
Slower speeds tend to lead to more “packs” of cars and drivers, all jockeying for position. This changes the competitive nature of the race, a positive for NASCAR leadership. After a restrictor-plate race in Indianapolis in 2017, a NASCAR senior vice president said, “With the tremendous racing and record number of lead changes we saw in Indianapolis, it’s safe to say we feel like we have additional tools in our tool chest that we can use as needed.”
But while these packs might create more lead changes, according to many drivers, the packs increase the likelihood of dangerous multi-car crashes. In 2016, just such a crash involved 35 of the 40 cars in the race.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr, son of the late NASCAR legend, put it succinctly in the Los Angeles Times when talking about the intensity of these packs and these types of crashes: “It’s scary; it’s very scary.”
Multicar crashes don’t just impact drivers. There is a real safety concern for spectators. Besides the human toll of sometimes life-altering injuries, NASCAR and the race tracks face litigation and liability risks. In 2017, NASCAR and Daytona Motor Speedway settled with a spectator injured during a massive crash in 2013. The plaintiff in that case suffered brain injuries from flying shrapnel. He was just one of 30 spectators injured that day.
Driver Austin Dillon was involved in a crash in 2015, also at Daytona, that sent him and his car airborne across the track. Lawsuits from spectators injured by that crash are still being filed. Two spectators, who filed their claim in Florida District Court in late 2017, cited injuries not from shrapnel but from toxic fluid. The first complaint related to that crash, filed in 2016, alleged that NASCAR and the Speedway were negligent and failed to “properly remedy dangerous conditions.” That 2016 negligence lawsuit was settled out-of-court for an undisclosed amount.