NASCAR's Infield Safety Dilemma
by Doug Belliveau

September 11, 2002

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Police escorts from the hauler to the garage and pits may become a common sight in NASCAR.
Photo by Doug Belliveau

Nowhere in the land of professional sports are so many fans allowed access to the close-up action of the inner workings. During a typical NASCAR Winston Cup weekend, thousands of fans and corporate sponsorship affiliates mill through the garage and pit road. There are certain times when this all seems to work out fine for everyone involved. But there are times, especially during practice, qualifying and race conditions where all is not joy in Muddville.

The race at Richmond last Saturday night clearly indicated to me that NASCAR is in a Catch-22 situation. How does a racing organization continue to grow its fan base and keep everyone safe in the process? Thereís no question that the sport continues to become more popular in part due to the accessibility of its stars and the fanís ability to see close up action. But how much fan benefit is too much and where is this all going to lead the sport?

For those fans that sit in the bleachers and watch racing from atop NASCARís ever growing raceway stadiums, it may not be apparent what goes on in the infield area. The press media, photographers and those fans fortunate enough to have access to the garage and pits certainly see first hand what is going on in these areas. During the weekend, there are times in the infield that could only be described as mayhem.

It has come to the point where it is sometimes difficult for race team personnel to perform their duties with the shear number of people in the garage and pits blocking their way. For instance, a crewmember shoos fans out of his way as he tries to push his tire cart towards the pit stall. Another crewmember is seen zigzagging his way through hundreds of people as he tows his gas can dolly to the 76 fueling station. Another uses a power saw to cut away damaged racecar sheetmetal only a few feet away from dozens of onlookers.

During the Monte Carlo 400, Jeff Gordon started in a backup car due to an unfortunate practice crash in his primary car. After 40 laps, Gordon pulled into the pits and his crewmembers opened up the hood Ė never a good sign. A few minutes later the crew attempted to push the DuPont Chevrolet about 20 feet behind the wall so they could assess the problem. This maneuver was a struggle at best. Winston Cup officials attempted to direct everyone out of the path of the car. As a member of the media, I did my best to comply, but could not move out of the way due to the many others that had congregated to get a glimpse of the situation. I got shoved hard in the back during the process, but there really was no other choice Ė get out of the teamís way or get seriously injured.

This was not just an isolated instance at a specific track. Week after week at tracks across the country, these types of occurrences seem to be all too common. During practice time, cars are constantly entering and exiting the track and garage areas at a rapid pace. This is valuable time for the teams to tune their setups, and the cars need to get back and forth as quickly as possible so as to get as much track time as possible. Officials do their best to keep the path clear for the drivers. However, there are so many people in the infield areas, many of whom are not familiar with standard procedures. All too often I have witnessed near-miss accidents in which some unsuspecting fan, wearing headphones or earplugs, does not hear the warning whistle, and almost gets clipped by the front fascia of a racecar on its way to the track. The drivers are certainly not to blame if someone gets hit. Their job is to get on the track and test the car. There are championship points and big money at stake during qualifying and the race. And these cars have no headlights, blinkers or horns. Many times they are coasting quietly along the garage access roads, and their only line of defense is to rev the engine loud enough for them to be heard, and that doesnít always work.

Surely John Andretti has better things to do than prepare for the impending race.
Photo by Doug Belliveau

The media understands the unwritten code of being hands-off when the action is running full throttle. Except for a select group of television coverage personnel, you just donít get in a driverís face to ask questions or interfere with a crew prepping a car to get a good photograph. Many non-media people in the garage area and pits are not familiar with this code. A classic example last weekend was when John Andretti was performing final preparations to his helmet and cockpit on pit road just a few minutes before the start of the race. A fan approached John for his autograph. Despite being denied, the persistent fan stood next to John for at least five minutes in hopes of getting the prized possession.

As the drivers walked from their haulers to the driver introductions on Saturday night, they were followed by dozens of fans seeking autographs on everything from shirts to programs to race helmets. Perhaps in light of the investigation into the alleged Tony Stewart incident, local police served as escorts for some of the marquee drivers.

How much of this should the race teams and drivers have to endure? Where does the line get drawn between increasing the popularity of the sport and the safety of all those involved? NASCAR has made great strides to increase the safety of the drivers on the track. But what about in the infield area? Is there a compromise that solves the problems at hand?

Itís one thing to sit around and complain about the problems. What NASCAR and the tracks need are potential solutions. Certainly some things can be done, and are in fact being done at race facilities. Hereís a list of possible ideas:

1) Establish both hot and cold pit/garage access. This allows fans and sponsor affiliates the ability to see the pits and garage during the weekend except during practice, qualifying and race periods. The fans would be assigned the cold access, which prohibits them from entering certain infield areas when the action is live. Essential members of the media could still be allowed hot access. This policy is instituted at Watkins Glen with success.

2) Set up specific time frames and areas where fans can seek autographs at the haulers or garage. This way the drivers can concentrate on the upcoming race and have an unimpeded path to their destination. Pocono has a separate section of fenced bleachers with a ďbank tellerĒ window through which drivers can sign autographs.

3) Use delineated barriers or roped off areas in the garage to limit encroachment of fans into essential areas. Dover uses a police-type barrier tape that keeps people from wandering into the access lanes and the covered garage area.

4) Construct small three or four row bleachers behind pit road. Fans and sponsor affiliates can be contained in these areas when the action is hot, and they will still get to see close up action. There is no need for non-media to be in the pit area during these times.

5) Require any sponsors or fans in the infield to attend a training session or watch an orientation video that details the policies and restrictions imparted during the race weekend.

6) Have monitoring cameras installed in each pit and garage. Corporate sponsor affiliates can watch the action remotely from infield hospitality tents in addition to the live network coverage.

These are just a few general ideas as to how to increase safety and restore functionality in the infield. Certainly all track facilities are configured differently and will continue to be so. Some of the short tracks are severely constrained due to their limited infield areas, making solutions more of a challenge. Nonetheless, NASCAR and the tracks should institute policies common to each facility, which address the potential safety problems that now exist in the infield area.

The author can be contacted nascar@autoracing1.com

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