(by Ed Hinton espn.go.com 10-22-09)
I shall now ask you the fans the toughest, touchiest, most personal, most politically incorrect question I have ever asked you:
Is racing dangerous enough for you anymore?
This bears asking, in light of your massively expressed discontent and growing apathy toward NASCAR. I wonder if the radical reduction of danger in the safety revolution isn't at the root of it all.
Don't get me wrong. I never have been one of those who believed the masses came to motor races to see people get killed.
But I have always believed you came, in some measure, to sense that death and serious injury were being narrowly avoided before your eyes.
I could hear it in your thunderous cheers whenever a Dale Earnhardt or a Tim Richmond would climb out of a demolished car and wave to the crowd. Or a Rick Mears would rise laughing out of a pile of rubble at Indy.
Before Jimmie Johnson rocketed from obscurity at the lesser levels to astounding success in Cup, his entire career highlight film lasted less than a minute: one horrific crash at Watkins Glen, head-on into a barrier that exploded; he jumped right out of the wreckage and onto the roof of his Busch car, and thrust both arms skyward.
Both he and the crowd were clearly exhilarated by his triumph over near-disaster. I wonder if your current apathy toward him is, in part, because he's had no moments like that in Cup.
I'm not pushing you onto a psychiatric couch here. I'm just asking about human nature, the anthropological fact of fascination with, say, the high-wire artist, the matador, the Navy SEAL, or -- in the analogy once drawn for me by NASCAR president Mike Helton -- the fighter pilot.
Atop that list of the daring, for more than a century between the first automobile race in 1894 and this, the fruition of the racing safety revolution, was the racing driver.
These past few years you have told me in droves that NASCAR has become boring -- "BO-ring," you often spell it -- via e-mail and comments on the ESPN Conversation pages. Yet NASCAR publicists bombard me constantly with computer-acquired "loop data" meant to prove, mathematically, that there's more passing, closer racing, fewer runaway wins than ever before.
So all I can rely on are my own eyes and memory, and I cannot for the life of me see that the racing is any more or less boring than it ever was whenever fields get strung out, and someone leads and leads and leads. Johnson does it, but so did Richard Petty.
You roundly say you despise the Car of Tomorrow because it's awkward and further dampens the racing, and because it is essentially a kit car neutered of make.
The new car is aesthetically ugly beyond question, and drivers tell us it's a handful and a clunker. Beyond that, I can't see how it has necessarily hurt the racing -- unless we're constantly watching the driver, inside the car, fighting the wheel and the brake pedal.
As for brand identification, they all looked the same to me a decade before the COT came along. It started in 1997 when NASCAR let Ford get away with a racing Taurus that looked nothing like a street Taurus, and the aerodynamics war went out of control from there, until they were all prototypes, none recognizable from the showroom namesakes.
I wonder whether the real issue with the new car, conscious or subconscious, is that its purpose has been too thoroughly fulfilled -- that it is too safe.
You say the drivers, including Johnson, are mostly vanilla. I wonder if it's more that you don't detect that distinct aura of swagger in men who knew and accepted, whenever a starting grid rolled off the pit road, that they might not make it back.
For the record, no journalist was more vocal than I on behalf of the HANS, soft walls, safer seats, moving the driver more toward the center of the car, and energy-dissipating materials in the cars.
It had gotten to the point that the price of the occasional reminders of the danger was too dear. I'd written too many accounts from too many racetracks where the pall of death or career-ending injury lay palpable and miserable.
I still feel that way. I still applaud, standing, NASCAR's adoption of every single safety measure, and more, advocated by the experts I brought into the discussion in the terrible outbreak of death by basilar skull fracture in 2000-01. Most of those Ph.D.s and M.D.s are now paid consultants for NASCAR.
Still I wonder whether, in doing the right thing -- the only thing, given the scientific capabilities -- racing has had to remove a rudimentary element of its electrifying appeal: the intangible edge on the human spirit during an event that involves high risk.
For a few months after the day Earnhardt didn't climb out, Feb. 18, 2001 at Daytona, NASCAR's television ratings spiked to their highest levels ever. They have declined, pretty much steadily, ever since.
In death he finally made the cover of Sports Illustrated, a place I'd failed to get him in life, during the nine years I worked there, through the prime of his career. Its sister magazine, Time, put him on the cover too, with a story that contained some information I'd written in SI stories that didn't make the cover, information now deemed more interesting to the masses because he was suddenly dead.
Driving the TV-ratings spike in the Earnhardt aftermath were male viewers ages 18-34, the demographic advertisers covet most. After the TV roller coaster, I kept getting this image of youth in droves, parking their dirt bikes and skateboards and saying to one another, "Man, dudes actually die at this NASCAR stuff, so I better check it out."
Then, HANS devices in place, soft walls under construction, danger radically reduced, the youths apparently returned to watching the X Games.
But throughout the aftermath of Earnhardt I felt this: He himself wouldn't have been disgusted by it all, for nobody understood the mass appeal of danger more than Earnhardt. It made him, he knew. And it would destroy him, he seemed to sense all along. And he accepted that.
He once showed me a letter from a woman asking him to drive her husband's hearse from the church to the grave. It had been the man's dying wish.
I knew how Earnhardt was -- he wouldn't go to funerals even for close friends such as Neil Bonnett and Davey Allison. Death was too real, too looming in his own life, too clear and present a danger to Earnhardt all the time.
Knowing this, and having been the victim of his chops-busting humor many a time, I went right back at him over the hearse-driving request. I dropped the letter onto the coffee table between us and asked, "Well? Did you do it?"
"Shee-ee-ee-IT, no!" he said.
And then he muttered: "I'll be in one of them bitches soon enough."
This was six-plus years before his death. Only months before it, amid much driver unrest over the deaths of Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin Jr., Earnhardt famously admonished his skittish peers:
"Put a kerosene rag around your ankles so the ants won't climb up there and eat your candy ass."
I wonder if that isn't what you miss most about him, the seven championships and 76 wins just being the rationale on which you would have rioted had he been left out of NASCAR's very first Hall of Fame class.
But Earnhardt was the paradox of indescribable enormity in NASCAR. A realm always on the bittersweet edge of danger due to the occasional reminders, the deaths of lesser names, could not bear the death of its biggest, its literally most-worshipped star ever.
This was too much. Something had to be done.
It was a flashback to what had happened in Formula One in 1994, when its own man deemed invulnerable to dying in a race car, Ayrton Senna, was killed at Imola, Italy.
The very next race, at Monaco, I sat with F1 czar Bernie Ecclestone in his motor coach in the paddock on race morning, saw the urgency in his face as he looked me in the eye, and heard him utter the words that would begin the worldwide safety revolution that, by now, has changed the electrifying nature of motor racing everywhere forever:
"It is necessary to give out the message to the world that we're not people who don't care."
They had to end the image of blood sport, even in the one so long regarded as the most dangerous -- and therefore somehow romantic -- sport of all, Grand Prix racing.
That they did. The high-tech safety revolution began, though it would not reach NASCAR for seven more years, and the very real death of its own perceived immortal, Earnhardt.
By 1997, Jacques Villeneuve, soon after winning the world driving championship, got into big trouble with the FIA for telling the BBC that Formula One was losing its appeal because it just wasn't dangerous enough anymore.
This was not from a cavalier driver in youthful denial. Nobody in F1 understood death on the track better, more personally. His father, Gilles Villeneuve, had been killed when Jacques was only 11, during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix in 1982.
Yet what Jacques said was terribly incorrect politically, because F1 was in the third year of its massive safety and public-relations overhaul.
That didn't mean he wasn't right.
Joey Logano's recent wreck at Dover is a prime example of how we in the media grasp at any remaining straw of the danger element, try to magnify it, bring it back.
The very idea that Logano could have been seriously hurt in that car, in that seat, wearing that helmet and HANS, in that simple rollover, was -- well -- borderline absurd.
But he said it scared him -- of course it did, in a generation of drivers who seem to sense they're playing video games until the simulator jars them enough to remind them that crashing really can hurt.
The commentators were breathless as the replays of Logano's roll went on and on, in slow motion and real time, ad nauseam.
See? Grasping at a straw of something fleeting, nearly gone, trying to bring it back.
We all are human and we all are mortal and we all are trying to deal with that, and seeing the nearness of death is somehow a part of our preparation.
My longtime friend and writing guru, Frank Deford, broke his career-long silence on the subject of auto racing -- he'd often kidded me about the garishness of it -- in the aftermath of Earnhardt. NASCAR, Deford concluded, is indeed "a slice of American life … and death."
Our greatest living novelist, the enigmatic Cormac McCarthy, slipped out of seclusion a couple of years ago for one TV interview, in which he said he does not understand writers who do not deal in matters of life and death.
Given racing today, I wonder if the man who gained fame and fortune by being the most overtly human and mortal of us all, Ernest Hemingway, would have said what he said: "There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing and mountaineering, all the others being games."
I wonder if he'd have listed only two. He's not around to ask, so I'm asking you:
Have science and society and their mandates to do the right thing, the humane thing, and the pundits like me who preached it …
Have we reduced your once-deadly, once-electrifying sport to just another game?