- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2001

Like all sports, NASCAR lusts for a larger audience, for a bigger slice of the pie. That's why it fooled with the rules this year altering the aerodynamic design of the cars and turned the Daytona 500 into a demolition derby.

Well, a lot more people are watching NASCAR now, but it's not exactly what the organization had in mind. They want to know how stock car racing is going to deal with Sunday's disaster, the one that featured a 19-car pileup and, on the final lap, a crash that killed racing icon Dale Earnhardt. After four fatalities in nine months Kenny Irwin, Adam Petty, Tony Roper and now Earnhardt you have to wonder if NASCAR, in its pursuit of popularity, has just gotten too danged dangerous. Worse, you have to wonder if the folks who oversee the exhaust circuit are putting profits ahead of safety.

If you're going to be a big-time sport, you have to look out for the well-being of your athletes. They not your sponsors or your paying customers are your most precious commodity. Almost all our games have an element of danger to them; it's one of the things that make them so appealing. But it really isn't in anyone's best interest for the games to become life-threatening.

Boxing, for instance, is as brutal a sport as there is. But championship bouts were reduced from 15 rounds to 12 back in the '80s. Pro football has passed rules in recent years protecting quarterbacks, outlawing crackback blocks and so forth. Hockey is handing out stiffer sentences to thugs. Baseball is giving umpires more authority in dealing with head-hunting pitchers. This is how it's supposed to work in sports.

Imagine if boxing went back to having fights to the finish. Imagine if the NFL, after several years of declining attendance, decided to "juice up" its product by eliminating facemasks. Imagine if the Lords of Baseball, under similar circumstances, said, "We need to make the game scarier. We're going to have the players bat without helmets, like they did in the old days." Does anyone outside of maybe a few XFL zealots think this would be a good thing?

That's kind of what NASCAR has done with these new rule changes. To promote more drafting, more lead changes, more "excitement," it has slowed the cars down and bunched them up on the track. The result? All a driver has to do is make "one little mistake," as Jeff Gordon puts it, and you've got a major crash on your hands. And "the closer you get to the finish," Ward Burton says, "the wilder it gets."

The crash that happened with 25 laps to go Sunday was one of the all-timers. Almost half the field got wiped out including both of Joe Gibbs' cars. Poor Joe. For one, brief, horrifying moment, one of his cars, driven by Tony Stewart, was perpendicular to the ground; then it toppled over onto another of his cars, steered by Bobby Labonte. Talk about your worst-case scenario.

Labonte and Dale Jarrett, the last two Winston Cup winners, must have sensed what was in store for them. They stayed in the back of the pack for most of the race. It was like they were "trying to avoid the big wreck," Stacy Compton said. But in the end, the Big Wreck got 'em, anyway. In stock car racing these days, you can run, but you can't hide.

This is a big year for NASCAR, the first of its six-year, $2.8 billion TV contract with Fox. It has a real opportunity to add to its fan base and, indeed, Daytona's overnight ratings broke records (8.4, compared to the previous high of 7.9). It's understandable if the organization wants to make its races more thrilling, more competitive sexier.

But not at the expense of the drivers' health or longevity. If you're going to be big-time instead of just a fringe sport you also have to be responsible. You have to know where to draw the line between entertainment and needless risk. And four deaths in nine months should give NASCAR a pretty good idea of where that line is. Obviously, it can't keep going the way it has been.

The NFL sells danger, too. But it hasn't had a game-related fatality in 38 years. And there have been repeated attempts to make the sport safer, too. There was no roughing-the-passer rule in the beginning, no grabbing-the-facemask-rule, no prohibition against the head slap. All that stuff came later and did nothing, by the way, to slow the league's growth.

It's time for NASCAR to look itself in the mirror. Does it need to make tracks safer? Does it need to make the Head And Neck Support device mandatory (though it might not have saved Earnhardt)? Does it need to go back to the old rules pertaining to car design?

Here's what it doesn't need, ever again: a Daytona 500 that turns into "21 Crashes and a Funeral."

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