This past Sunday was NASCAR’s first and biggest race biggest race of the season, the Daytona 500. On Saturday they ran the Nationwide Series race, which is somewhat like the minor leagues of NASCAR even though many of the stars do race in the Nationwide circuit. The Daytona track is a true speedway, being a 2.5 mile oval. With tracks like Daytona and Talladega, the drivers come within inches of each other in attempt to draft and basically team up to go as fast as the car will allow. This leads to some exciting races, but also a very dangerous situation. If one car gets out of line, it can cause a gigantic wreck involving a multitude of cars. Unfortunately, this exact scenario came to fruition on the last lap of the Nationwide race Saturday. A rather horrific crash took place in the last turn of the race where Kyle Larson’s car flipped and went directly into what is called the ‘catch fence‘, and seemed to disintegrate.

Larson Crash

Larson Crash

The car was literally sawed in half with the engine and front tires coming off from rest of the vehicle. Shockingly, Larson was able to climb from his car relatively unscathed. On the flip side, many of the spectators were not as lucky.

NASCAR has always been very image conscious. They do everything they can to promote the personalities of their drivers, as well as embrace social media, going so far as having Brad Keselowski tweet from his car many times last season. Therefore, the way the events transpired on Saturday left a lot of people scratching their heads. The terrible wreck actually took place right as Tony Stewart was crossing the finish line, so the race was completed as the wreck was taking place, changing the way ESPN covered the aftermath.

While they kept the cameras on the cars involved in the wreckage, as soon as the drivers walked away, ESPN went straight to the congratulatory interviews and trophy presentation. About five minutes in, it became rather odd that there was no mention of the spectators when you could clearly see a humongous hole ripped through the catch fence as well as emergency response teams coming to the scene. Every mention of the accident and how it affected the fans in the area were vague at best, and misleading at worst. Shortly after the race completed, Deadspin published a piece stating the obvious: “Why was NASCAR refusing to address the catch fence issue as well as the injured fans?”

Twitter was being inundated with firsthand accounts from the track of fans being hurt, critically injured, and even dead, but neither ESPN or NASCAR was making any sort of a priority to acknowledge the situation. Then, only 15 minutes after the race-ending accident, Tyler Andersen, who was sitting in the section where the debris entered the grandstand, uploaded the frightening video below:

Upon NASCAR authorities viewing the video posted by Andersen, they immediately reached out to Google to have YouTube remove the video. YouTube did pull the video, but of course the Twitterverse then wondered if the real reason the video was pulled was NASCAR attempting to protect their image and not wanting the world to see the danger which could be associated with going to a race. A debate then immediately started as to whether or not it was even legal for NASCAR to ask for the video to be pulled. After all, with the rampant use of HD cameras in smartphones, would sporting leagues be able to pull down every single video made by fans at a live event?

Blocked Nascar Vid

Blocked Nascar Vid

By Saturday night, YouTube came to the realization that NASCAR didn’t have the right to demand pulling the video and put it back online:

Our partners and users do not have the right to take down videos from YouTube unless they contain content which is copyright infringing, which is why we have reinstated the videos.

As that time, NASCAR then released a statement saying that copyright infringement was not the reason they asked to have the video pulled:

The fan video of the wreck on the final lap of today’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race was blocked on YouTube out of respect for those injured in today’s accident. Information on the status of those fans was unclear and the decision was made to err on the side of caution with this very serious incident.—Steve Phelps, NASCAR Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer

Let’s be honest, accidents happen and tragedies happen. Over 15 people have died at Disney World in the last 20 years, which just happens to be the “Happiest Place on Earth.” Unfortunately we don’t live in a bubble. If that video did identify someone being mortally injured, NASCAR would have every right to remove the video, not only to protect their brand, but more importantly out of respect for the victims of the accident.

However, while the video was graphic in nature with people franticly calling for medical assistance, there was nothing shown that would identify the injured or be considered too graphic for the evening news. By removing the video, NASCAR was in essence creating their own Streisand Effect — by having the clip pulled, everyone was now far more interested in the content. The timing of the removal was also questionable. Since it took place in the middle of a time when television viewers didn’t know if people were dying, it didn’t exactly look good for NASCAR to pull a video with the YouTube error citing copyright infringement.

The whole situation happened very quickly. I turned on the race as soon as the Deadspin story was published, and of course wondered what NASCAR was trying to hide. In an occurrence like what took place, decisions obviously need to be made very quickly. There was a tragic accident in 1999 where three people were killed in Charlotte at an Indy Car race. It is in nobody’s best interest to show a fluid situation where people could be losing their lives, and NASCAR didn’t want to be in that situation. There were some cynics who said that NASCAR didn’t want anyone to see that the catch fence did not do its job for fear of legal retribution from the spectators. Indeed, it now seems that three of the injured fans have retained attorneys.

In the end, the most important thing is the speedy recovery of the 28 people injured, and the ability for NASCAR to fix the issue with the catch fence to ensure something like this never happens again. From a brand management standpoint, if NASCAR could turn back the clock, I would have to imagine that they would have handled the situation better by adhering to the following pieces of advice:

  • Be Forthcoming. We don’t know exactly what took place, but NASCAR should have let ESPN comment on the situation with the spectators. They didn’t have to show close-ups of people who were injured, but they could have shown a wide shot with honest news that people were indeed injured and being airlifted to local hospitals.
  • Being a Bully Never Looks Good. Any time videos are pulled from the web, it creates a controversy and feels like a situation where someone says, “I’m taking my ball and going home.” NASCAR has always gone out of their way to create a unique experience with the fans, allowing amazing access in the pits, interaction with the drivers, etc. For them to make a knee jerk reaction and pulling the video hurts that image.
  • Choose Your Message Wisely. If NASCAR initially really did want the video removed out of respect for the victims, that should have been expressed directly to YouTube. You really can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube in this situation. NASCAR came off looking like they were trying to profit during a tragedy by not allowing the video to be watched due to copyright infringement. NASCAR only changed their tune about the copyright issue after YouTube republished the video saying it wasn’t copyright infringement. If NASCAR was up front with everyone involved as to why they wanted to remove the video, it wouldn’t have turned into nearly the story it has become.