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Questions & Answers With TIME’s Writers

2 minute read

TIME.com: Though race car driving is the most popular spectator sport in America, many people didn’t even know who Dale Earnhardt was until last week. How do you explain that? Is it a niche sport?

SAPORITO: Actually, more people know Dale Earnhardt’s name than don’t. He brought spectators into the sport. Thirty million people were watching the Daytona 500. They don’t all live in North Carolina and Florida.

What makes this sport so popular?

SAPORITO: At a NASCAR race, as opposed to F-1, you can see the whole track, hear all the noise, feel it. Plus, it’s a happening, with more than 150,000 people, perhaps 40,000 of them camped in the infield in full party mode.

In the wake of this tragedy, what changes do you expect NASCAR to make to improve driver safety?

SAPORITO: Not much. It will encourage the use of the HANS head restraint device, but if the broken seat belt is the culprit, not much will be done. Drivers have complained that the rules that slow them down to keep any car from pulling away into a big lead are inherently more dangerous.

Earnhardt’s death has been compared to the death of Princess Diana. Why is it that this man resonated with so many people?

SAPORITO: Because Earnhardt was both royal and connected with people. He was a multimillionaire driver who had a common touch. He was poor once, and never forgot it. Approachable as a personality yet irascible, a bit of an outlaw, and that struck yet another chord.

What do you say to those critics who argue that Earnhardt got what he deserved driving at 175 mph?

SAPORITO: We could say that being a professional in many occupations is all about managing risk. And Earnhardt did that well, otherwise he’d have been dead a long time ago. He was amply rewarded for those skills, too. But there are things just out of your control, whether you are driving at 175 mph or on I-75. There was a huge smashup outside of Washington yesterday involving more than 100 vehicles. Weather was a factor. Nobody deserved to die, but somebody did. It was just circumstances.

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