In the Wake of Daytona: How NASCAR Handled a Violent Crash on its Grandest Stage: Guest Post by Scott De Bell and Cullen Ronan

“It’s time, once again, to put the danger and risk back at the front of our minds and continue to find new ways to make NASCAR the safest of all professional sports.” NASCAR blogger James Dunn, as well as many others, have shared similar concerns following the horrific incident that quickly captured the nation’s attention on February 17, 2020. In front of a sold-out Daytona International Speedway crowd of 101,500, and 10.925 million viewers nationwide, veteran NASCAR driver Ryan Newman was involved in one of the most violent crashes in recent history during the final lap of the prestigious Daytona 500

Though Newman ultimately survived with non-life threatening injuries, the shocking display of carnage on such a grand scale brought the safety of NASCAR drivers back to center stage. Both viewers and media outlets alike were quick to criticize the sanctioning body for putting its drivers at risk. Prominent disapproval of NASCAR regulations was levied against the organization, with critics voicing that NASCAR values viewership over driver safety and expressing the wreck was potentially an avoidable occurrence. NASCAR’s overtime regulations (extending the race past its advertised 500-mile distance) as well its decision to not issue a caution flag following Chase Elliot’s final lap crash in turn 2 are viewed as choices that could have ultimately prevented the vicious wreck in the final moments of the race.
In the immediate fallout of the accident, NASCAR was quick to employ standards of crisis communication in their responses by promptly engaging in the “Principle of Full Disclosure.” According to Strategic Planning for Public Relations, when adhering to this principle, organizations should provide as much information as possible during a crisis, under the presumption that everything they know should be made available with justification for not-releasing certain information. Upon receiving an update on the condition of Newman, NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell issued a statement on Twitter updating the public on the status of his health, despite federal laws keeping O’Donnell from detailing the specifics of his injuries. Concurrently, O’Donnell held a press conference in front of media personnel sharing a statement on behalf of Newman’s team, Roush Fenway Racing, as well as saying, “going forward we (NASCAR) will provide updates as we can, but at this time our thoughts are with Ryan and his family”.

Furthermore, NASCAR instituted the “Media-as-Ally” principle in an attempt to quell concerns regarding the response time of its emergency services. Within a crisis, Strategic Planning for Public Relations notes that organizations are “best advised to treat news media as allies,” as they provide the opportunity to communicate with necessary publics and shareholders. NASCAR used the media not only to provide updates on Newman’s status but give detailed explanations of its safety procedures as well. In a press conference addressing the media, O'Donnell shared the calculated response times of first responders on the scene, highlighting how adept NASCAR’s safety personnel is when responding to any incident, let alone one of this magnitude. He also used this opportunity to taut NASCAR’s in-car protection, saying the safety systems all worked as were designed," but re-emphasized the importance the organization places on driver safety by stating “...again, we're never satisfied with what took place.”

NASCAR instituted crisis communication principles to combat the negative publicity faced by the sanctioning body in the aftermath of this incident. By highlighting its safety efforts and issuing timely updates on behalf of Newman and his organization, its publics were kept adequately informed in the hours and days following the crash. Utilizing a strategy of compassion in the wake of Newman’s wreck also helped express empathy on the organization's part — a necessary tactic in retaining NASCAR’s reputation. These steps provided an adequate defense to the brand as a result of this shocking incident. However, if the on-track product continues to subject drivers to wrecks of this nature, then the organization must prepare much more exhaustive reputational efforts in the face of inevitable public and media scrutiny.

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