How Tragedy Shaped A Sport

In light of ESPN showing their 30 for 30 series on the life of Tim Richmond, a cold and sobering truth came back to the forefront when it comes to NASCAR. There is no major sport in America that has dealt with tragedy at the level NASCAR has. It’s perhaps even more appropriate that this thought was reaffirmed as the NFL is currently having a bit of an issue with player safety, and the dangers of playing the game.

While NFL players are perhaps more subject to injuries at a more frequent rate, and perhaps to those that will more greatly diminish their quality of life following football, the notion of dying on the playing field isn’t near as prevalent in the NFL as it has been in NASCAR. This of course is very likely due to the fact that no NFL player has actually died from a physical collision on the football field.

The point though I’m trying to make is not at all an attempt to demean the perils of the NFL, not at all, just using it for comparison purposes. The point I’d rather attempt to make here, and over the next couple of pieces I put out, is just how much NASCAR has been shaped by these tragedies. Be it safety reform, an overall change of the landscape of the on track product, the families and personal lives greatly effected, or the fans themselves, it is utterly impossible to look at the history of the sport without recognizing that tragedy, perhaps more than anything else, has ultimately shaped it.

In many ways, what causes something to be great, can also be its greatest undoing. The sport of auto racing itself is built on the drama, the danger, the peril. That danger can ultimately be the death of someone, as so often has been the case.

It became a big business sport, thus requiring the need for drivers and owners to nearly be two places it once. While that brings in the dollars, basic odds will say the more and more people are flying around in small airplanes, the more likely something bad can happen. That’s just how things work.

Fans flock to the sport, and its drivers because of the connection they feel they can make. The sport is more of a family sport than any other major sport in the country. The emotional connection between fan and driver is unrivaled in professional sports. People in the other major sports cheer for a logo. The people are constantly changing. Not the case with NASCAR, fans cheer for the people. They feel almost as though they know these people, and the sport does what it can to help further such feelings. The problem is that this emotional connection amongst the participants themselves, and the participants and the fans, makes those tragic moments all the more difficult to deal with.

From a pure numbers stand point, any episode of serious nature, or any fatality comes at seemingly a heavier price. In the major sports, you have 30 teams. In a sport like NASCAR, the circle is much, much smaller, and accordingly, much more tightly knit. 43 drivers start a race each week, if one is missing, it’s not a small story. In the NFL over 1,000 people play and participate each week. This isn’t to dismiss one being out, but the numbers alone show what a difference there can be.

In NASCAR there are 43 teams who show up, and on each given team there are usually two recognizable faces, if even that. The driver, and in some cases the crew chief. Within the sport, a select few of the owners are big names, in many cases, due to their hands on nature with their teams, or the name they bring with them. It would be a safe argument to say they are prevalent a figure as your big guns in the NBA, NHL, MLB, or NFL. However, in today’s NASCAR, with so many multiple teams (and one of those is a driver) there probably aren’t more than 7 or 8 owners in the sport who fans would feel they can identify with, or recognize.

So you throw it all together, there are easily less than 100 or so central figures in the sport. When something happens to one, it’s as though it’s happened to them all. Yes, there the countless number of pit crew men, and the guys who work at the shop, that’s not debatable. The problem is, these people, and these team members are about as well known as the 53rd guy on an NFL roster, or the guys who don’t dress on a nightly basis in the NBA.

While the answer is always yes, there are times when disaster strikes the sport and the question gets asked, can the show go on? When there’s a hole in NASCAR, it’s gaping, and it’s felt by everyone in ways that I just don’t think exists elsewhere.

Opposing teams don’t spend the entire year all living and co-existing together every weekend like the NASCAR family does. While these people are all extreme competitors, they are all neighbors, and nobody likes it when something bad happens to someone in the neighborhood. And with NASCAR, this is the neighborhood they live in. For many, they are neighbors in the infield during the season with their Rvs, and then on Lake Norman once the year is over.

For many, the only people they can relate to, and forge any type of relationship with are the people who live the same life they do. It’s a life of travel, 38 weeks a year these men pack up their families on Thursday and come home late Sunday night, or early Monday morning. They live and breath each other. They are one family.

And they are an ever evolving family, that unfortunately too often has been shaped by horrible tragedies, perhaps even more than any of us have yet to really comprehend.

So hopefully over the next few pieces, and over the next several days I can touch on some of those stories. Some are recent, some more well known, others maybe merely just forgotten about, and yet others that perhaps spent a while on the back burner when it came to the rest of the public.

NASCAR is a people sport, and so many people lost so much, their lives included, to help make it what it is, and for it to be what it is, and that’s something any sports fan, or any person, should be able to appreciate.

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