Feb 23, 2014; Daytona Beach, FL, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series cars sit on pit lane during a rain delay at Daytona International Speedway. Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Daytona 500 rain delay gambled with fans’ lives


Dear NASCAR Fans, the Weather Channel questions how much the sport cares about your safety.

Eric Zerkel, an editor at the Weather Channel, wrote a fairly scathing article about how NASCAR waited a full hour to order an evacuation order for the stands after the sever weather advisory warning was issued at this year’s Daytona 500

Now, nearly two years later (after a fan died in a lighting strike at Pocono), track officials at Daytona International Speedway exhibited a similar pattern of negligence. A timeline of internal communication between the NWS-Melbourne and track officials, public warnings issued by NWS-Melbourne and warnings communicated between track officials and spectators shows that track officials waited an hour to communicate the threat of severe weather to fans, putting the lives of more than 150,000 fans at risk. ” – Daytona 500: Despite Warnings, Track Officials Waited an Hour Before Evacuating Fans from Dangerous Weather

NASCAR said the call to clear the stands comes from the track management, but let’s be honest for a moment, NASCAR and the International Speedway Corporation that owns Daytona International Speedway are owned by the same family, and are separate in name only. If any high-ranking NASCAR official, or member of the France family, wanted the stands cleared they could make the call.

I grew in in Florida, about 90 miles south in Melbourne, which is where the weather forecast Daytona used was generated from. I’m familiar with the weather down there and I realize that some things aren’t predictable. Florida does have pop up showers that last twenty minutes and then the sun comes out again, that clearly wasn’t what was going on Sunday, but that’s what NASCAR and track officials said.

I didn’t watch much of the Daytona 500, but when I turned off the TV they totally gave the impression like, “Just a passing shower, don’t worry the Air Titan’s got this!” Fans apparently stayed in stands before they sought shelter underneath the metal stands, and only by the grace of God nothing bad happened, much like last year.

Last year a car in the Nationwide race rode the crossover gate up and into the restraining fence and injured a dozen or so fans. NASCAR’s response was to repair the fence to the same spec and hold the Daytona 500 the next day because somehow that made it safer. I questioned the logic of holding a bigger, faster, race with a larger crowd with just some token repairs to the fence, but NASCAR decided that repairing the fence was safe enough and held the race anyway.

NASCAR is under tremendous pressure to run the Daytona 500 on that selected Sunday. It’s NASCAR’s Superbowl. Fox is paying NASCAR for TV rights based at least on part the idea that the Daytona 500 will pull in over 10 million viewers, and that’s not going to happen if they say, “Looks like we’ll be in a rain delay for at least six hours.” So, NASCAR officials tow the company line of, “It looks like there’s a window and we can get this thing in today.”

Hold the race on Monday and ratings go in the tank, and more importantly commercial views plummet because people who watch on the DVR don’t watch commercials. Hold the race on Sunday, even hours late, the stands will be full, people will watch in primetime. Hold the race on Monday and most of your live viewers will disappear and most of your ticket holders will return to their day jobs and you race in front of empty stands.

There’s a certain amount of credibility that you need as a sanctioning body, and I don’t think NASCAR has it. Kyle Larson spins in the first twenty laps, doesn’t hit anything and keeps going, that’s a caution. Kurt Busch spins in the last 15 laps, doesn’t hit anything and keeps going, that’s not a caution. Why? Because throwing a caution for Larson’s spin made the show better, Busch’s wouldn’t.

NASCAR decided to fight a thunderstorm for the sake of the show. They gambled with their fan’s safety on Sunday, and they won. Sadly, that won’t always be the case, and I wouldn’t recommend putting yourself in a situation where your safety relies on someone who makes decisions based the best interest of the show.

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