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Walking the thin line between danger and safety

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And I said
"Please turn the tide"
But no one was listening
I walk a thin line

And I said
"Fate takes time"
But no one was listening
I walk a thin line.

Fleetwood Mac -Walk a Thin Line

After declining ratings and attendance figures, coupled with increasingly duller races, put them in crisis mode a couple of years ago, NASCAR's brain trust in Daytona Beach decided that one of the sport's problems was that there was an old-school, nasty edge that simply wasn't there anymore. The drivers, they thought, were simply too nice to each other, and race fans, they decided, don't pay much attention to "nice." So, at a press conference to start the season, Robin Pemberton uttered the now-infamous phrase: "Boys, have at it."

Then at Texas Motor Speedway, Kyle Busch had at it in the most blatant manner possible. And NASCAR was faced with a dilemma.

A month ago at Las Vegas, IndyCar fans were on the edges of their seats as over 30 cars zoomed around the tight 1.5-mile confines of Las Vegas Motor Speedway. For the first ten laps, the spectators were in that elusive pseudo-Zen state of amazement, nerves, and thrills as the largest IndyCar field in years sliced and diced in a seemingly impossible cluster of traffic. It was absolute race-fan adrenaline.

Two laps later... a waking nightmare. Suddenly, the amazement and thrills vanished, and the undercurrent of fear that lent extra spice to IndyCar fans' enjoyment asserted itself in its full, vicious bloom.

The two incidents may seem unconnected on the surface, but fundamentally they are tied together by a common, exceedingly thin thread - the one that separates what is acceptable and what is not in the increasingly unsteady balancing act between safety and entertainment.

There is one truism that may be unpleasant to some, and that is that safe racing is boring racing. Behind the wheel, there is so much nuance behind even the dullest single-file parade. But fans watching from the stands or on the couch cannot feel the thousands of sensory inputs that a race driver has to balance during a single lap on an oval track, or the demands of precision that a racer must satisfy to compete on a road or street course.

The absence of that context removes a critical element of enjoyment from motorsports events for the average viewer, and thus even a race like the Indianapolis 500, where the cars are turning average laps close to 230mph (a speed faster than a Cessna cruises), can appear boring if the race cars are not virtually on top of each other. Because proximity is the most obvious, and therefore the most appealing, element of racing competition for those who have never experienced or cannot internalize the intricate series of variables that goes into every single lap of motorized competition.

Then, too, it is difficult for fans who have never raced themselves to understand the demands of etiquette and the "unwritten rules" by which almost every racer in every discipline abides. It is difficult to comprehend - and, for former racers tasked with providing color commentary, often difficult to explain - why deliberately wrecking someone in one situation is considered frontier justice or a satisfaction of an elaborate, shared code of conduct, and why wrecking someone in a similar fashion in other circumstances is an egregious violation of that same code.

Thus, racing sanctions are left trying to navigate an extremely confined corridor between protecting their competitors and providing entertainment value for their consumers. The "sweet spot" - the perfect balance between those two different sides of the high wire - is at best elusive, and some even believe that it does not exist at all.

But still they attempt to balance as best they can. IndyCar drivers hate the unnecessary danger of pack racing at 1.5-mile ovals, and yet how can the series abandon the concept or execution of it when so much of their advertising deals with the artificially-created, yet fan-appeasing on-track action and fraction-of-a-second finishes? Meanwhile, Kyle Busch's actions at Texas Motor Speedway earned him an unwanted vacation from the driver's seat because they happened under caution and at high speed - but for incidents that were equally as frightening (for instance, Carl Edwards catapulting Brad Keselowski into the Atlanta Motor Speedway catchfence), NASCAR elected not to issue similar punishment.

In fairness to the sanctions, the race fans and motorsports media are complicit in this situation. We bray and kvetch about too much danger when a horrendous multi-car incident takes Dan Wheldon's life... but at races prior, we bray and kvetch when a Ganassi car dominates a race with a gaping interval. NASCAR fans are horrified when Ron Hornaday barely escapes injury at Texas, but cheer like mad when Jeff Gordon tries to pick a fistfight with Jeff Burton on the at the same track. At virtually every motorsports event, any time there is a wreck, the first impulse of many fans (far more than we are usually comfortable admitting) is to exhibit a voyeuristic reaction - cheering, angry yelling at the perceived culprit, and so forth - before turning a single thought to the well-being of those involved.

The mainstream media, of course, tends to skip over all nuance and context and head straight for that old hoary standby - the idea that racing fans are like ancient Romans watching the lions tear apart the Christians. It is a ridiculous comparison that is made largely to gain attention more than it is an attempt to analyze the situation with any objectivity.

At the same time, we cannot ignore our Jekyll/Hyde impulses when it comes to the nature of racing and our desire to create a bridge between the incredible risks and the visceral thrills they create for us and our need to know that those undertaking those risks do not suffer the ultimate price for it. Nor can we shy away from the fact that, occasionally, because of our appetites we venture so far off the middle ground that it requires a harsh course correction to point us back in the proper direction.

Where does that thin line lie? That is the question each sanction will ask - and so will the fans and media - as we head into this off-season. Perhaps a better question, though, is whether we will ever be able to walk that line without wavering too far to one side or the other.