Between Fontana and Daytona, we saw a very different reaction from the NASCAR and IndyCar communities in regards to pack racing.
The dichotomy between the mentality of IndyCar and NASCAR in regards to pack racing and consequently, the wrecks that ensue because of it, is quite interesting when you compare the two most recent examples.
IndyCar saw the return, or rather some mutation of the pre-2012 pack racing at Fontana a couple weeks ago and it ended with a car flying through the air (Crash Video). Just one week later, NASCAR returned to one of four races where they have true pack racing and it too ended with a car flying through the air (Crash Video).
IndyCar comments regarding Fontana
Following the indyCar race, there was untempered outrage from many drivers and teams. "We shouldn't be racing like this, sooner or later somebody is going to get hurt," said Juan Pablo Montoya.
"What are we doing? Someone is going to die," warned Will Power. "It's just not safe racing," concluded Simon Pagenaud. "Why we’re here doing that today, I have no idea," a bemused Team Penske President Tim Cindric told reporters.
NASCAR comments regarding Daytona
Now for the response to Austin Dillon's flip into the fence...
"It was real frightening. You're just on the verge of tears, to be honest with you. I didn't know exactly where he hit the fence as far as how far down the straightaway, so I didn't know if he was in range of the few seats that we've got here tonight. But it was just real scary," explained race-winner Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"I’m shocked that Austin Dillon is even alive after what he went through," exclaimed Jimmie Johnson.
"It is literally like a video game out there these days, except for it’s real life," said Jeff Gordon, describing the pack racing. "It’s crazy. It’s really crazy. I love Daytona."
Ryan Newman had the strongest comments of all and echoed Will Power's sentiments. "NASCAR got what they wanted. That's the end of it. Cars getting airborne, unsafe drivers, same old stuff. They just don't listen. They had an event in 2001. They've had several events since then. They just don't pay attention to safety. Simple as that.”
Conversely, both of the drivers involved (Dillon and Briscoe) didn't seem too rattled by their flights.
With the exception of Newman and a handful of IndyCar stakeholders (Foyt, Carpenter), the NASCAR community reacted very differently than IndyCar in response to their respective pack races and the violent endings. You have Power saying 'someone will die' while Gordon is talking rather enthusiastically about how he loves Daytona.
Difference in reactions
While many members of the IndyCar paddock were infuriated, disgusted, shocked, and appalled by the Fontana race, the tone surrounding Daytona was much tamer and the comments less malicious towards the powers that be. Fear and terror was quickly replaced with relief and praising of NASCAR safety today. Everyone was shocked by the accident, but all, sans Newman, seemed content with the on-track product.
There has been no public outcry to rid NASCAR of pack racing, no vitriolic attacks launched against the sanctioning body. But what makes Austin Dillon flying into a fence any different than Ryan Briscoe going for a tumble through the infield, if not worse? Not much, to be honest.
Why it's acceptable in NASCAR, but not IndyCar
Pack racing is almost universally accepted throughout NASCAR, but not so much when you look at their IndyCar cousins. There are multiple factors involved in this glaring contrast in mentality.
Among these include a higher threat of injury in the open cockpit cars of the IndyCar world where flipping over instantly becomes a life threatening situation. Along with a greater threat of injury, there's also a higher chance of flipping in the first place due to incredibly high speeds and no fenders encompassing the wheels.
NASCAR drivers have much more protection around them, but don't make the erroneous mistake of believing they are invincible either, as exemplified by Kyle Busch in February.
Pack racing and high-flying accidents is an expected occurrence when NASCAR heads to Daytona and Talladega. In fact, a catch fence has been damaged by a race car at Daytona every year for the last three years. This incident ranks at the extreme end of the spectrum, but it's not like stock cars haven't done this before.
Expected vs. unexpected
IndyCar sought to eliminate that style of racing immediately following the tragic death of Dan Wheldon in the 2011 season finale. So it's understandable that there was a bit of a panic when it made an unexpected and shock return at Fontana, ending with yet another car in the air. Everyone was already on edge from the plethora of violent wrecks at Indianapolis to begin with.
Many of the detractors within the IndyCar paddock were also justifiably annoyed that their warnings to series officials fell on deaf ears days before the event, while in NASCAR, everyone knew what they were signing up for.
Does NASCAR/IndyCar need to make a change?
Both series are destined to have cars going airborne when they go pack racing, sometimes resulting in injuries to both drivers and fans. It's almost completely unavoidable. With that being said, does something need to be altered before tragedy strikes and forces their hand?
NASCAR doesn't need to change anything when it concerns Daytona and Talladega. The fact that Dillon can walk away from an impact like that says a lot about the state of those cars. And the fact that the fence held up with fans only suffering superficial injuries should be applauded. However, there is always room for improvement and the next area they need to take a closer look at is the fans the stands. The fence has proven it can keep a car out, but not all the debris that comes with it.
On the other hand, IndyCar needs pack racing. It's auspicious to their future, but they need a milder form of it - somewhere between what we saw at Fontana and what we enjoy every May at Indianapolis.
An acceptable amount of risk
Racing and risk go hand-and-hand in this inherently dangerous sport. You're never going to eliminate the danger involved, but you can subdue it to a logical level with certain safety initiatives.
Now in terms what exactly constitutes as an acceptable amount of risk is very subjective question and open to interpretation, varying from person to person. In the end, it should be the drivers who have the final say.
Pack racing has always been and always will be all about dancing with chaos and trying not to trip, but there is a fine line between justifiable risk and a suicidal endeavor. NASCAR knows where it stands on that line when it comes to pack racing while IndyCar is still trying to figure that out, but completely eradicating pack racing is not the answer.