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Should NASCAR drivers hit the track on off weekends?
by Mike Neff
During his off-week, Kasey Kahne pole vaulted out of Williams Grove Speedway in Pennsylvania after crashing a World of Outlaws sprint car. While Kahne was unhurt, the wreck brought attention to the fact that race drivers like to race, whether in their “daily driver” or in most anything with two, three or four wheels.
Most every driver currently in NASCAR started running go-karts, quarter midgets or any number of other divisions at a local short track. They progressed through the ranks, caught some breaks and eventually made it to the big time. Fortunately, for their fans and the tracks that helped spawn their careers, many haven’t forgotten from where they’ve come — and occasionally make a trip back.
NASCAR’s Cup stars enjoy doing all sorts of things during their infrequent off weeks — a couple days in the Bahamas, anyone? — but many simply use the vacation as a chance to race something different. Their Cup car owners, however, don’t make any money from them doing that and face the daunting possibility that something could happen that would take them out of his ride for a while or, God forbid, forever. With that in mind, and depending on the contract in place, owners will put varying limits on the amount of extracurricular racing a driver can enjoy. Some owners are obviously more lenient than others and the status of the driver in the hierarchy of the NASCAR landscape can ultimately play a role in what they’re allowed to do.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. only runs a handful of races outside of the Sprint Cup Series each season. He is limited by his contract (although he doesn’t seem to mind it), and his importance to his organization is far too valuable to risk injury that would keep him out of his Cup ride. Kyle Busch, on the other hand, races just about every weekend, whether it is in a NASCAR touring series race or in a Late Model at the TD Bank 250 in Oxford Plains, Maine. Busch thrives on racing even if it is far from the pristine race tracks where the Cup Series competes — and that keeps him at the top of his game, which in the long run helps him achieve the best results he can for his “major league” team.
When Justin Allgaier drove for Penske Racing he was asked about running the prestigious Chili Bowl each January. Roger Penske asked him if it was a 100 percent certainty that he would not be injured. Obviously, there is no form of racing where you can be 100 percent assured of no injury, so he was told that it would be in his best interest to not compete. There are many other similar stories in the Cup garage. Some drivers are allowed free reign to do as they please, knowing that the consequences could impact their careers, while others are limited by contracts.
So the question ultimately becomes: Should they be limited in what forms of motorsports they participate in away from the Cup Series?
The truth is that people are injured (and even die) doing a multitude of things that are mundane compared to racing motorized vehicles.
We’ve all heard the stories of people drowning in six inches of water and falling off ladders while cleaning gutters — or in a particular case, breaking an arm while riding on top of a golf cart. So the potential for injury is everywhere, but the potential for serious injury is certainly greater when racing cars.
When the rubber meets the road — or in this case, the track — it all boils down to what a driver can convince his owner is an acceptable amount of racing (or other dangerous activity) he can enjoy while still completing the obligations of being a national touring series driver. Whether they’re wheeling a 410 sprinter or sky diving into Daytona International Speedway, there is danger out there that could end up causing them to miss time behind the wheel or, of course, be permanently sidelined.
However, there is an almost equal opportunity for injury or death driving in a passenger car or working at home. Owners can’t be blamed for trying to ensure their investments are protected and in good condition when Sunday money is on the line, but they also can’t be hovering over them 24/7.
There is a unique balance and it is different for every owner and driver combination.