The topic of what sorts of activities race car drivers should engage, or perhaps better said, be allowed to engage in away from the track has been discussed for quite some time. This past week, the subject was again brought to the forefront when it became known that 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott had sustained a broken leg in a snowboarding accident. As a result, it appears as if the sport’s most popular driver will be sidelined for multiple weeks.
The impact of driver missing races, especially such a noteworthy star as Elliott, can be far reaching. Team members have to make adjustments to accommodate for the replacement driver. The injured driver’s organization has to work around issues related to championship points and eligibility for the NASCAR Playoffs, contracts, and sponsorship obligations. Those sponsors often have marketing campaigns geared toward particular regions of the country at certain times of the year with that star driver serving as the centerpiece of a media blitz. And obviously, the driver himself has to focus on getting well while fighting the urge to return to the driver’s seat too soon.
So what, if any, limitations should be placed on drivers to help avoid having to deal with all of those issues listed above?
Often when the topic of allowing NASCAR drivers to participate in what might be deemed as dangerous activities when they are away from their primary occupation, the name that most frequently comes up is that of Kyle Larson. The 2021 Cup Series champion typically competes in dozens of dirt track races each year in Sprint Cars, Late Models, and Midgets. All of this with the blessing of Hendrick Motorsports.
Apart from racing, there are drivers who engage in pursuits such as skiing, boating, flying, and any number of other hobbies where injury could occur.
So, should there be restrictions?
HMS used to place limitations on what their drivers could do outside of NASCAR. That policy has obviously changed in recent years. In a press conference following Elliott’s accident, the organization’s president, Jeff Andrews, was quoted as saying, “These guys have to go out and live a life outside of the race track.”
It is easy to argue either for or against allowing NASCAR drivers to participate in activities away from the track.
On one hand, there are many people and companies who depend on their participation in those races where they are employed to compete. And at the same time, they are very well compensated for what they do in what many would consider a “dream job”. Making a few concessions in one’s personal life as part of an exchange for a lifestyle most will never attain doesn’t seem to be asking too much.
On the flip side, for as much of a pedestal as we may place them on, these are still real people. And like everyone else, they have dreams and goals they want to achieve with some of those things having time limitations. It could be argued that a person who has a “dream job” should not be punished for accomplishing that particular dream.
NASCAR teams seem to have differing viewpoints on the issue.
The aforementioned Hendrick Motorsports appears to have taken a more liberal approach with Elliott snowboarding and also flying his own plane while Larson, Alex Bowman and William Byron are regular participants in other forms of motorsports outside of NASCAR.
Joe Gibbs Racing appears to have taken a stricter approach. Christopher Bell is a three-time champion of the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl and has also driven in Sprint Car races in the past. However, things have changed regarding his involvement in these types of motorsports.
Prior to the start of the 2023 season, Bell made comments that appeared to be critical of the JGR organization and Gibbs himself for not allowing him to race on dirt. Later, he clarified that statement.
“Joe(Gibbs) has not mentioned any dislike for dirt-track racing,” Bell explained. “The only thing was his wanting to keep me healthy, whether that was racing or being out on the lake or anything. He just had my best interest in mind. I did a bad job of portraying that. I don’t know what the future holds for me dirt track racing, but my comments were not well put.”
With all of that said, these are people who are familiar with taking risks and the consequences of such. This is a dangerous occupation whether drivers participate in other risky activities or not.
Two prominent drivers, Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman, were injured seriously enough to miss races last season while taking part in their primary profession. It would seem as if some things drivers may choose to do away from the track are quite tame compared to driving around a race track at 180mph each week.
Each team has to decide if it is best to have a happy driver who is allowed to take risks or a driver who might be a bit disenchanted with his situation but has less chance of being injured away from the track.
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Richard Allen has been covering NASCAR and other forms of motorsports since 2008.
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