Thursday, July 2, 2015

Why There Needs To Be A Drivers' Union

Driver unions are rare in motorsports. There is the Grand Prix Drivers' Association for Formula One drivers and that's pretty much it. Over here in the United States, none of the top three series (NASCAR, IndyCar and IMSA) have a formerly drivers' union. Perhaps there should be an overarching organization representing the interests of the drivers who compete full-time in American racing series.

While unions can focus on many things from getting sufficient compensation, pensions and improved working conditions to name a few, the biggest thing a drivers' union in the United States should focus on is driver safety, especially at racetracks. There isn't much drivers from NASCAR, IndyCar and IMSA share when it comes to money and sponsorship and television exposure but all these drivers run at the same racetracks. NASCAR and IndyCar both go to Indianapolis, Texas, Iowa, Fontana, Mid-Ohio, Pocono and Sonoma while NASCAR use to go to Milwaukee and IndyCar use to go to a plethora of tracks NASCAR currently goes to and IndyCar returns to places such as Road America, Phoenix and Michigan always remain alive. IMSA also runs at Road America and shares Daytona and Watkins Glen with NASCAR while going to Long Beach and Belle Isle with IndyCar. IMSA also went to Fontana, Homestead, Indianapolis, Kansas, Charlotte, Las Vegas, Texas, Phoenix, Iowa, Sonoma, Mid-Ohio, St. Petersburg and Barber back in the days of Grand-Am and ALMS and all those tracks are currently used by NASCAR and/or IndyCar.

The places they go is a major thing these three series have in common and improving safety at these tracks is in the best interest for all the drivers in all three series. Let's also not forget that these drivers will run in more than one series. IndyCar and NASCAR drivers run in IMSA, especially for the endurance races while IMSA competitors occasionally run NASCAR road course race and, though not as common, an IndyCar race but there is Sean Rayhall, who has competed regularly in both IMSA and Indy Lights this year. And every ten years a NASCAR driver will run an IndyCar race. 

The drivers of these series also share safety concerns. After Ryan Briscoe got airborne from spinning in the grass at Fontana last Saturday, Kyle Busch tweeted this:
When a car spins and slides on grass, speed is not scrubbed off as quickly compared to a car sliding on asphalt or even concrete and this allows for a greater chance of getting airborne or dig into the grass and barrel roll and this is as true for IndyCar as it is for NASCAR and probably IMSA. The entire back straightaway apron at Fontana is paved over most notably because of the accident that took the life of Greg Moore. Daytona paved over the back straightaway apron after accidents such as Michael Waltrip in the 2004 Daytona 500, where his car dug into the earth, causing him to roll. 

The other thing it appears all drivers seem to agree needs to be improved on in terms of safety are catch fences. When Dan Wheldon died, there was a loud uproar not just from the United States but also from the international racing community for improvements and approaching four years since Wheldon's accident nothing has been changed. To be fair, this type of change take time and there could be people working on an improved catch fence as we speak and it's been kept under the covers. Indianapolis Motor Speedway and University of Nebraska-Lincoln engineers started working on the SAFER barrier in 1998 and it wasn't installed until 2002. Unfortunately, between 1998 and 2002, Gonzalo Rodríguez, Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, Jr., Blaise Alexander, Tony Roper and Dale Earnhardt all lost their lives in fatal accidents from hitting the wall.

We are approaching four years since Wheldon's accident but you would think we would at least here about steps in the right direction, however we have heard nothing. While many have cited cost-effectiveness as a reason why we haven't seen changes to catch fences, to be honest, that isn't good enough of a reason. Safety is expensive but it is worth it, especially for catch fences because catch fences aren't something just for drivers' safety, they are for fan safety. Any improvement to catch fences to reduce the amount of debris shredded from cars and flung into the air is reducing the chance of fans getting hurt.

Daytona International Speedway is spending $400 million to renovate the grandstands and amenities and that their choice but after having a driver suffer serious leg injuries due to the track's naiveness about an accident happening in a certain area of the track and just two year and a half after a car flew into the catch fence in the tri-oval, the folks at Daytona can not afford another serious accident this weekend. International Speedway Corporation could have and should have taken a fraction of that $400 million and along with Speedway Motorsports Inc., and Indianapolis Motor Speedway to come together and developed a better catch fence.

Developing a better catch fence won't make a track any money but having drivers and fans getting hurt because of a track's short comings won't make them any money either. With IndyCar failing to listen to teams amount the aero package at Fontana, IMSA failing to listen to teams about pit stop rules and a traveling safety crew and NASCAR having to scramble and react to Kyle Busch's accident and put up tire barriers at many tracks for driver safety, you only have to wonder how long drivers will put up with the lackadaisical attitudes of sanctioning bodies. If drivers really want their voice to be heard they must come together because the safety concerns for one apply for all competitors regardless of sanctioning body.