The first time anyone goes to a race, veterans will recommend they get right down close to the fence at least for a moment to let the cars whip past. The draft hits like a wall of air, the tiny flecks of tires tick off your face like tiny pinpricks. And for a moment, you can feel the force and power of racing up close, literally in your face.
But as long as fans are that close to that much power, when things go bad, they can go very, very bad. Witness the tragedy this past weekend at Chandler (Ariz.) Firebird International Raceway, when a tire that spun off a wrecking dragster hit and killed a woman. Track officials said that the woman's death was the only fatality in the track's 27-year history.
The natural reaction from many observers will be a kneejerk one -- either shut down the track or enforce restrictive safety measures. And there's the consequent backlash to the backlash, with fans saying they would resist measures such as nets, fences or greater distance between them and the racetrack.
So, which side to take? Is the visceral thrill of being so close to the track worth the risk of injury, or worse, if something goes wrong? Consider, for instance, the epic Geoff Bodine wreck at Daytona in 2000, and take a look at how close the crowd is:
Amazingly, there were no serious injuries; only five fans suffered minor lacerations. The Carl Edwards wreck at Talladega last year could have been even worse; one young woman suffered a broken jaw, but if the fence hadn't held, one shudders to think of the damage that could have resulted.
Certainly, if something from the field of play flies into the stands, it's a lot more likely to cause grievous injury if it's at a race than at, say, a basketball game. Racing has a sad -- if relatively sparse -- history of fan deaths.
In the worst accident in racing history, more than 80 people died when Pierre Levegh's Mercedes Benz flew into the crowd at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France. Road-course accidents from Daytona Beach to Italy, where the crowd stands close to the cars with little to no protection, have caused more deaths than on-track racing. Three spectators were killed at Michigan International Speedway in 1998 at a CART race, and three more killed at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte at an IRL event in 1999. (For a more thorough list of recent fatalities at races, click here.)
Odds show that race fans are in more danger driving to and from the track than they are in their seats. Part of the thrill of racing is the edge of danger, however slight it may be. Still, racing owes respect to the memory of the late fan, and part of that respect should be considering every possible step to protect the fans while preserving the racing experience.