It's "Ironic as Hell," in the words of NASCAR driver Donnie Allison, that his brother and fellow driver Bobby is in an Allentown, Pa., hospital after crashing during a Winston Cup race at Pocono International Raceway on June 19. Bobby suffered a concussion, broken bones in his left leg, fractured ribs and a bruised heart, and he's facing a lengthy, and expensive, recovery.
It's ironic because Bobby is one of the drivers who have pressed NASCAR president Bill France Jr. to substantially increase medical insurance coverage for drivers, crew members and officials. NASCAR literally isn't buying. At the moment, NASCAR requires racetracks to provide individual insurance ranging from $50,000 at Winston Cup events to $15,000 at lesser races, amounts that don't begin to cover treatment for serious racing injuries. NASCAR, the privately owned organization that governs stock car competition, is highly profitable, but France holds that the cost of increased coverage would result in higher dues paid by drivers and other members. He believes they would balk at footing the bill. He also takes the position that those desiring greater coverage can and should insure themselves.
France's arguments are unconvincing. Individual insurance is indeed available to drivers, but it's much more expensive—as much as triple the cost—than group coverage arranged through organizations like NASCAR. Star drivers can afford the premiums, but their less successful colleagues, who constitute the vast majority of the 5,000-plus NASCAR drivers, find the cost of privately purchased insurance prohibitively high. And even the biggest stars are usually underinsured.
In 1984 Allison urged France to adopt a new policy that would provide NASCAR members with unlimited medical coverage, as well as long-term disability benefits. The annual premium for such a policy would have raised dues by roughly $50 per member. But France said that Allison was speaking for a minority and that most members would not spring for the extra 50 bucks. This is difficult to swallow. But even if France were right, NASCAR could easily afford to absorb some or all of the premium increase.
Certainly other racing organizations have provided greater coverage. In 1983 the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) and the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) invited NASCAR to join with them in buying a policy that would provide $500,000 in medical insurance for each driver or other member. France declined, citing, as always, the supposed reluctance of his membership to pay the increased fees. The two groups went ahead, sharing the premium.
The IMSA/SCCA policy France turned down would have eased the financial burden Allison must bear. Allison had his own insurance—in addition to the $50,000 he received under the NASCAR policy, his medical coverage provides $100,000. But his bills figure to exceed that total. And Allison, the winner of three Daytona 500s, including this year's, and NASCAR's Most Popular Driver of the Year seven times, is better off financially than most drivers.
The list of NASCAR drivers who have been seriously injured over the years is long. Since 1978 at least three have suffered brain-stem injuries requiring extended medical care. Two are still alive; one. Rick Baldwin, has a wife and two daughters, ages eight and nine, and lives, according to his doctors, in a "persistent vegetative state."
France likes to say that NASCAR's No. 1 priority is safety, but its real top priority appears to be making money; when safety contributes to that objective, wonderful, but when it doesn't, well.... For example, when a crash occurs and the yellow flag comes out, the cars keep racing until that lap is completed. It's thrilling for the fans but dangerous for the drivers, because all the cars behind a wreck must race through it. But NASCAR refuses to allow a yellow flag to take immediate effect.
It also comes up short in the area of on-site medical services. Another racing organization, CART, has its own medical team, with two orthopedists at every Indy Car race to oversee emergency care. NASCAR leaves such care entirely to individual tracks, not all of which do an exemplary job.
NASCAR puts on a great show. It presents the most exciting auto racing in this country, if not the world. And to be sure, its cars are extremely safe, as racing vehicles go. The drivers on the Winston Cup circuit have big prize money to shoot for, and the sport is booming. If France and NASCAR won't pay for increased medical benefits, then the least they can do is give members the chance to purchase low-rate group coverage.