Thirty years ago almost to the day — April 20, 1986 — 30 cars rolled onto the track at North Wilkesboro for the First Union 400. The field included stars and icons, past and future champions, names that will last as long as there’s racing.
And in the coming years, four of them would die behind the wheel.
Think about that for a second. More than 10 percent of the field, gone before their time. Imagine that figure this weekend, looking out at the field at Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 in Richmond and knowing — not thinking, knowing — that several of them won’t live to watch races in their old age.
That’s what’s at stake when we’re talking about NASCAR safety. And that’s why there can be no compromise, no hurt feelings, no fines for speaking the truth.
Tony Stewart got fined for speaking his mind this week. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t make for much of a headline; Smoke speaks his mind frequently and at length, generally with all the relentless grace of a pickup truck grinding through Indiana mud. It’s why Stewart is both beloved and infuriating, why — love him or hate him — he’ll leave a hole when he retires later this year.
But here’s why this week’s fine was different. Stewart wasn’t griping about the media or other drivers or NASCAR’s propensity for showmanship, topics that generally result in justifiable, come-on-back-to-the-pasture fines. No, this time he was speaking out on a matter of safety — specifically, the relaxing of the rule that requires teams to tighten all five lug nuts on a wheel during pit stops. Less time tightening lug nuts means a quicker return to racing … at the risk of a loose or uncontrolled wheel.
“I’m beyond mad, I’m P.O.’d at NASCAR about it, to be honest,” Stewart said on Wednesday. “For all the work … they want us to do for safety, we can’t even make sure we put five lug nuts on the wheel.”
Think about this for a second. You’ve got cars going 200 mph, cars that can fracture into lethal shrapnel, and you’re all right relaxing safety precautions? This, despite indisputable evidence that people die in this sport? Come on. NASCAR ought to have thanked Stewart.
Not so. NASCAR fined Stewart $35,000 for violating Section 12.8.1 of the rule book, which involves “disparaging the sport and/or NASCAR's leadership, or verbal abuse of a NASCAR Official, media members, fans, etc.”
Look, it’s indisputable that Stewart has ticked off pretty much everything that list, at one time or another “disparaging” everyone up to and including the “etc.” But he’s not in the wrong here. Comments on safety — however sharply phrased — should never warrant a fine. (NASCAR won’t disclose the exact reason for Stewart’s fine, but he’s spoken at length on only two topics this week, and we’re fairly certain NASCAR isn’t fining him for returning to the track after a long injury layoff.)
One notable element of this controversy is the way that other drivers, in the form of the Drivers Council, have rallied to Stewart’s defense. Drivers generally don’t work together off-track in any meaningful fashion, both by tradition and by NASCAR’s design; they lack the collective power to challenge NASCAR’s autocracy.
Almost 50 years ago, Richard Petty tried to change that. Petty formed the Professional Drivers’ Association in an attempt to bargain collectively for safer racing conditions. The PDA refused to race at then-brand new Talladega because of concerns about tire wear; rather than cancel the race, France simply dismissed their concerns and brought in a couple dozen unknowns to race in their place. (Historical footnote: one of those unknowns running his first Cup-level race was a kid by the name of Richard Childress.) The PDA lasted about as long as a lap at Bristol.
NASCAR couldn’t get away with such a sweeping, dictatorial move now; sponsors who’ve poured millions into this sport would howl. (And if there’s one voice NASCAR will listen to above all, it’s the sponsors.) Drivers still carry virtually no power, but they do carry the weight of public opinion, and NASCAR is desperate — or ought to be desperate — to keep the interest of its fans.
Greg Biffle also spoke up on Thursday about the relaxing of the lug nut rule, saying “I feel like it’s a ticking time bomb. The left-rear tire is going to fall off of one of these cars and spin out, and the thing is going to go driver’s side into the fence. And we’re going to hurt someone. For what purpose? There’s no advantage when we all do the same thing.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. noted that the loosened lug nut restriction “freaks me out. I was blown away that NASCAR quit officiating that aspect. I could not believe that was the choice that they made. But that is the world we live in.” (Worth noting: neither Biffle nor Earnhardt were fined, but neither driver has publicly called out Brian France lately, either, as Stewart has.)
“I think it’s a safety issue that we should look to address before there is a negative outcome with it," Kurt Busch said Friday. "To me it makes sense to have five lugnuts. You want five of them tight. You go to your Goodyear Tire store and get your tires rotated they put on three lugnuts you are not going to feel so comfortable about that.”
Now, the sport’s most notable drivers — including Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Earnhardt — have stepped up to pay the fine on Stewart’s behalf. That means it’s time for NASCAR to pay serious, full attention. This isn’t about picking new title sponsors or advocating political opinions; this is quite literally the future of the sport.
Safety’s greatest enemy is complacency, the idea that you’ve done enough to protect yourself. No one has died on track at the Cup level in more than 15 years — long enough for an entire generation to believe that the worst that happens in major wrecks are some bent fenders and seared tempers.
Stewart can see that complacency with the lug nut issue gathering like storm clouds overhead. “Last year it started; this year you see the problem getting worse,” he said. “Well, if you see a problem getting worse like that, where’s the bottom of that trend going to happen? It’s going to happen when somebody gets hurt, and that’s going to be one of the largest black eyes I can see NASCAR getting when they’ve worked so hard and done such a good job to make it safe.”
Stewart’s last point is a good one: NASCAR has done an exceptional job of creating and enforcing safety regulations, which NASCAR CEO Brian France reiterated on Thursday in discussion with the Associated Press Sports Editors.
“Nobody has led, done more and achieved more in safety than we have,” France said. “It is a never-ending assignment, and we accept that. We do take offense that anything we do is somehow leading toward an unsafe environment, so [Stewart is] wrong on that.”
The challenge with safety, though, is to make it proactive rather than reactive, preventing accidents rather than preventing more accidents. Again: look at the starting lineup of the First Union 400. Think about Neil Bonnett, JD McDuffie, Rick Baldwin, and of course Dale Earnhardt. Think about how one, two, three, even all four of them might still be with us today if current safety protocols were in place when they drove. Then think again if letting safety rules slide is a good idea.
Guard rails are enough … until someone wrecks hard enough to fly over them.
High fences are enough … until someone drives fast enough to punch through them.
Seat belts are enough … until someone hits a wall hard enough to overwhelm them.
Three out of five lug nuts are enough … let’s not wait to find out how that sentence might end.
NASCAR: do the right thing. Swallow your pride in the name of safety. Rescind Stewart’s fine, reinforce the five-means-five lug nut rule. There’s no room for complacency here, no room for compromise. Given the choice between hurt feelings and hurt drivers or fans, there’s no gray area whatsoever, and there never was.