Everyone who follows auto racing today will remember the day Dale Earnhart died at the Daytona 500. It shocked the racing community, but shocked the fans and "casuals" even more. I was watching the race on TV that day and saw the crash. It didn't look all that bad, and Earnhart had walked away from much more spectacular crashes before. But it didn't take long before we could see that something had gone terribly wrong.
I knew before the TV coverage ended that he was dead just by the way everyone on the broadcast talked AROUND the facts and nothing was being "officially" announced. It seemed inconceivable that "The Intimidator" could be gone. But I wasn't prepared for the outpouring of grief, the finger pointing, and rumors that came next. Young people were amazed that anyone could actually die in a race car.
Their reaction surprized me as I had grown up in an era when race drivers died almost regularly! I remember reading my grandfather's National Speed Sport News in the fifties and sixties when there was still an obituary PAGE listing all the drivers, mechanics, officials, or fans killed at races the weekend before. So much time had passed between motorsports deaths that many people had forgotten "the bad old days" when death and serious injury were part of the scene. This gap had also stopped the development of safety requirements as well.
The death of Earnhart Senior created such a stir that NASCAR had to again turn to looking into their safety policies. Because this sanction had become "the 800 pound gorilla" of auto racing, other sanctions also began looking at safety. There were MANY changes, and drivers today have a far better chance of survival in a crash than those just a dozen years ago.
But you must remember that a dozen years before Earnhart's death, drivers had a higher chance of death or serious injury. It is said that "Naval regulations are written in blood," but the same can also be said about auto racing, in fact possibly it is more true in racing. In NASCAR alone, well known drivers had to die to get safety advanced. Joe Weatherly's death caused window nets to become required, the death of Glen "Fireball" Roberts brought fire retardant suits and Fuel Cells into use. I could go on and on.
There was a time when auto racing was considered SO dangerous that a national newspaper chain called it "A Blood Sport" and campaigned to have it banned! Drivers, mechanics, and even officials and fans were killed or badly injured at auto races, especially at major events such as the Indianapolis 500 and many of the huge, highly banked Board Tracks. But the specter of the Grim Reaper appeared at all racetracks.
During the Thirties a famous speedway in California opened as Ascot Park, owned and operated by a local American Legion post. It became known as "Legion Ascot" and when the American Legion dropped involvement with the track, it continued to be known simply as "Ascot." It was a very popular 5/8 mile "oiled dirt" race track that drew Hollywood stars and sports figures of the day, as well as (literally) legions of fans. Many of the great drivers of the era raced at Ascot.
They also DIED at Ascot! Though in reality, at a no higher rate than equally popular tracks. The difference was the publicity which surrounded Ascot, partly because it was frequented by celebrities. Every crash got front page or early page coverage, often with lurid descriptions and graphic photos. The Hearst Newspaper chain began to focus on auto racing's toll, and the "carnage" at Ascot in particular.
It is interesting to note that the Hearst chain was already suspect for it's news coverage, often described as "Yellow Journalism." This charge came as far back as the Spanish-American War. When the battleship Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, William Randolf Hearst chose to believe rumors that Spanish operatives had blown up the ship rather than wait for proof of what actually happened. He chose to publishe the possibility of war. In fact, his own reporters on the scene said that the blast was most likely caused by a boiler explosion, not sabotage, and there would be no reason for war. Hearst famously told them "You provide the copy, I'll provide the war."
And as all historians can tell you today, that is EXACTLY what happened. Hearst newspapers ran stories and editorials, even coming up with the rallying cry "Remember the Maine" to inflame the Untied States into going to war with Spain.
In the mid-1930s, the Hearst chain had set it sights on automobile racing. There were no lengths to which they would not go to "prove" racing was "a nefarious Blood Sport, Hell bent on destroying the male youth of the nation." When Babe Stapp was killed in his racer, the Hearst reporters dogged his wife with reporters and photographers, publishing dramatic photos of the wreckage and her tears. Even at the funeral they tried to get her to lash out at the sport and give them some juicy details.
It got so bad at the graveside that a group of drivers and fans tried to bodily push the reporters and photographers away, which degenerated into a fight at one point. The next day Hearst papers headlined that a "riot" had broken out at the funeral "proving that racing drivers are a rough house bunch who must be stopped." Arrests were made and lawsuits threatened on both sides, but in the end the evidence was on the side of the racing people and no one was fined or jailed.
But the publicity had finally brought the speedway to a financial ruin and it closed. Things then quieted down regionally with no focus to attack, and eventually nationally. Besides, by then World War Two was on the horizon and the Hearst chain "had other fish to fry."
Was automobile racing a "Blood Sport?" Well, no more than aviation of the day. During the period between the world wars, aviators were even more popular with the general public and managed to die at an equally prodigious rate. They also made headlines, but were never singled out for the same abuse by a national newspaper or radio chain.
Racing WAS dangerous, no doubt. I once asked old time racer Pappy Hough this question. His answer was; "Son, they died by the hundreds! It was the Depression, nobody had any money and jobs were tough to come by. There was money in aviation and auto racing, so it was worth the risk to us," explained.
In the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties, the world was a different place. Race cars were spindly, open wheeled machines made of parts of other cars and hand manufactured speed equipment. They ran on tall, wire wheels with tires three to for inches wide. Gasoline tanks were made out of all sorts of things, none crash worthy. Most drivers wore a leather "helmet" and thick glass goggles. There were no safety belts or roll bars, let alone a roll cages.
They raced on dirt tracks meant for horse racing, or towering, high banked wooden speedways of a mile or more in length. The premier speedway in the land was the Indianapolis "Brick Yard." The track got the name because it was a 2 1/2 mile rectangular shape paved with bricks. Driving 500 miles took four or more hours and the bricks were more like racing on cobblestones. Picture the battering the men and machines had to take for 500 miles on a cobblestone street!
But slowly, the sport evolved. Several of the old racers I have talked to either told me that "they just didn't know any better," or "that's the way it was done." But as the sixties dawned, safety finally got serious attention. The problem was that technology kept moving ahead as well, the speeds always seemed able to outpace the safety efforts.
Crash walls and debris fences (originally known as "wheel fences" because wheels came off so often years ago) cut accidents involving spectators to a minimum. Back in the "bad old days" race fans were almost participants! The first race I went to had a cable and post "guard rail" and no fencing of any kind! My grandfather taught me lesson number one there; "Never turn your back on a race car." And I was told never to get in the way of an errant wheel too! Both of these are truths which remain a warning today.
I raced Stock Cars, was a track employee, an official, an announcer, a writer, and a historian in my many years in the sport. Even knowing the history, I have never considered auto racing a "Blood Sport." Dangerous? Always, even today! But there has never been the "Gladiatorial Combat to the Death" aspect that defines a true Blood Sport.