SBD/February 18, 2011/NASCAR Season Preview

Has NASCAR Over Promoted Safety Since Earnhardt's Death?

NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series has gone 359 consecutive races without a fatal crash

NASCAR in the 10 years since Dale Earnhardt's death has "emphasized how safe its cars have become," but "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," according to Nate Ryan in a cover story for USA TODAY. Earnhardt's death at the '01 Daytona 500 "helped spur a revolution of safety improvements that has resulted in 359 consecutive races without a fatal crash" in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series. But there is 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." New Hampshire Motor Speedway Exec VP & GM Jerry Gappens said, "Race fans like that element of danger. 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." Ryan notes 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." And at last year's season-ending awards ceremony, NASCAR's PR staff "rolled out a crash-filled, vulgarity-laced video that trumpeted its 'Boys, have at it' policy." Fox, which will broadcast Sunday's Daytona 500 and the first 13 of the 36 Cup races, "will build on that vibe." 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." Fox Sports Media Group Chair & CEO David Hill said that the net's "theme for 2011 will channel Ernest Hemingway's contention there were only three true sports: mountain climbing, bullfighting and auto racing." Hill: "This sport is all about the driver; everything else is an afterthought. The Car of Tomorrow became the greatest red herring in the history of this sport. It took the emphasis away from the heroes" (USA TODAY, 2/18).  

WILL YOU BE MY HERO? In Orlando, Beth Kassab noted in the "decade since the sport lost its biggest star, NASCAR has gone from reaching far beyond its Southern moonshine-running roots to the penthouses of Manhattan and back again." The sport's "sprint to a new level of popularity -- followed by a sharp fall to a new low -- happened for several reasons." To this day, "no other driver has emerged to become the kind of larger-than-life figure Earnhardt was for so many" (ORLANDO SENTINEL, 2/16). In L.A., George Diaz wrote, "The sport continues to hold out for a hero. Jimmie Johnson has won five consecutive Sprint Cup titles, and the worst thing is that not many fans can find the anger to scream or yell. There is much ambivalence" (L.A. TIMES, 2/14).

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