MONTE DUTTON: THE REAL REASON THE RACING IS BETTER
Let me tell you what I love about NASCAR that I didn’t 25 years ago.
In the 1990s, writing about races at Talladega Superspeedway used to scare me. A writer hates dealing with tragedy more than anything else. The job is distasteful, but it has to be done. He sees track workers covering the wreck with tarpaulin and carting it off. He knows the signs that something is terribly wrong. He prays his instincts are wrong, but he knows they aren’t. That’s the way it was the day Dale Earnhardt died on the final lap of the Daytona 500.
The first time I ever covered a race at Talladega, Neil Bonnett flipped through the trioval. So did Robby Gordon. They both walked away. Bonnett had been warned not to race again. When he got out of that car at Talladega, many of us in the press box whispered to each other, “Thank God. Now he’s got it out of his system.”
Then we heard Bonnett talking to an MRN reporter, and he said, no, that was just part of the sport, and he’d be back to race again. I got chills, and I thought to myself, if ever a man got fair warning …
It was the same day that Jimmy Horton’s Chevy sailed out of the track in turn one, and Stanley Smith suffered critical injuries in the same gruesome, multi-car crash.
The following February, I was driving down I-95 to Daytona when I heard that Bonnett had been killed during practice. I had nightmares about it from time to time. I was there for Kenny Irwin’s fatal crash in New Hampshire, and when Jerry Nadeau’s career was cut short at Richmond.
All the grisly death and maiming now seems a relic of the past. The injuries suffered in NASCAR races are more akin to those suffered by football players. Torn ACL. Separated shoulder. Concussion protocol.
Knock on wood. Forever may it be so. Writing about racing should not be similar to writing about war.
The race within a race is not to the checkered flag. It is between safety and speed. It is between the technology that makes cars go faster and the technology that protects drivers from grave, life-threatening injury.
Safety is a moving target. The sport must be ever vigilant lest things get out of hand again.