BOB GARFIELD: If you knew that 3 or 4 times a year an NBA player would die on the court, would you encourage your kid to be a basketball fan? Before you write that off as a preposterous question, consider that is precisely the situation with Nascar. The death of popular racer Dale Earnhardt last week is being played out in televised memorials as a horrific event, but with Fox, NBC and Turner Sports paying collectively 2 and a half billion dollars to televise Nascar over the next 6 years, a human tragedy can become a marketing liability. On the Media's Mike Pesca reports.
MIKE PESCA: On the bottom of the television screen Michael Waltrip was crossing the finish line at the Daytona 500. On the audio track Michael's brother Darrell was whooping it up in his role as Fox sports racing analyst. At the top of the screen could be seen a plume of smoke; a crash on the third turn. At the moment of victory barely commented upon. Since then, racing has discussed nothing else. What should have been a dream telecast for Fox Sports turned into the race that a record 32 million viewers would never forget. Many viewers were watching their first Nascar event ever. It's conceivable that they could think of Dale Earnhardt's death as a freak accident. They might not have known the recent history of Nascar racing.
ED HINTON: Earnhardt is not just the biggest name to die. He is the 4th in 9 month.
MIKE PESCA: Ed Hinton is the auto writer for the Chicago Tribune and many of the other papers in the Tribune chain.
ED HINTON: For 20 years I've been hearing 'em say this: it was meant to be. Well, 4 in 9 months of the same preventable injury? That's a lot of meant-to-be, guys. Their fatalism tells them that it's meant to be; my understanding of science tells me it doesn't have to be.
MIKE PESCA: The science Hinton speaks of was documented in a series of articles he wrote for the Tribune papers. Among his findings, Nascar, unlike all other forms of professional racing, doesn't fund its own medical team to travel from race to race. Nascar doesn't mandate the use of the head and neck safety or HANS device which along with other procedures has eliminated fatalities from Formula One racing over the last 7 years. Nascar would not contribute to a universal data base on crash trauma and fatalities. Nascar officials have been slow to establish so-called soft wall technology which could lessen the impact of a crash. Even Dale Earnhardt, famously reluctant to embrace safety technology, told Hinton that he didn't buy Nascar's arguments that soft walls would flake off and litter the track. Hinton recalls Earnhardt told him: "I'd rather they spent 20 minutes cleaning up that mess than to clean me off the wall." That quote ran exactly one week before Dale Earnhardt's death. In the week after, the television commentary was generally defensive in the face of overwhelming evidence.
DR. JERRY PUNCH: In my opinion Nascar racing is the safest form of racing in all the sports.
MIKE PESCA: Dr. Jerry Punch commenting on ESPN the night of Earnhardt's death. Punch's status as one of racing's highest-profile commentators was established in part because he's a physician specializing in treating trauma. Despite the scientific evidence, and despite the deaths of driver after driver, many of whom Punch counted as his friends, he still equivocated when asked about the HANS device.
DR. JERRY PUNCH: It wouldn't have made a difference in Dale Earnhardt's injury. 170 or 160 mile an hour impact that Dale Earnhardt -- going from that to zero in a millisecond -- I don't think it would have made any difference.
MIKE PESCA:: To Ed Hinton it was typical of the ill-informed, post-crash commentary.
ED HINTON: I haven't seen one person on television in the aftermath of Dale Earnhardt's death who I would consider an expert in the function of the HANS device. When they put Dr. John Melvin who's the world's leading expert on what causes racing injury and who has done the latest cutting-edge research, I'll say there is an independent expert--
MIKE PESCA: John Melvin is former head of safety at General Motors and a specialist in the field of bio-engineering.
DR. JOHN MELVIN: It's such a special topic -- nobody is really very skilled in it other than those of us that work in it, and that includes doctors. They treat injury, but they really don't understand how they occur. Everybody that says that the car crashed into the wall at 180 miles an hour is wrong, basically, and it's that kind of mis-information that is out there that makes it sound a lot more difficult and almost hopeless problem than, than I think we feel in the crash injury area than it really is.
MIKE PESCA: Hinton says too many Nascar analysts are Nascar apologists, but he also says that the Nascar culture itself is often a barrier to addressing safety problems.
ED HINTON: They have been made fun of as a podunk red neck blood sport for so long that they still have that up against the-- us against the world mentality, and it hasn't quite dawned on them that all of North America is beginning to pay attention to 'em.
MIKE PESCA: As much as it wants to hold on to its roots as a daring assortment of whiskey runners from the Carolinas, Nascar has moved into the bigtime. Its drivers are all rich. It's the second most highly rated television sport behind football. It is the number one spectator sport in America. Given the price the networks are paying to televise Nascar, they're forced to broaden the fan base to include new viewers. Still, 2 and a half billion doesn't buy safety reform. Dan Bell, director of communication for Fox Sports says that a network can publicize, televise and market but they can't force rule changes.
DAN BELL: The safety issue, you know, it's a concern but it, it basically is a Nascar issue - it's not for us to go to Nascar and say hey you need to do this and you need to do that - no, absolutely not.
ED HINTON: Fox is not only going to have to answer to the hard core Nascar TV audience and a new casual audience it's bringing in. I think they're going to have to answer to civilization now.
MIKE PESCA: Ed Hinton says that the impetus for change might come from car sponsors. Advertisers don't want to be associated with death, nor do automobile companies who stress safety as their number one selling point. By positioning themselves as mainstream and family-friendly, Nascar and the networks set themselves up for more than a financial windfall. They set themselves up for scrutiny. For On the Media, I'm Mike Pesca.