Freakonomics in the Times Magazine: How Many Lives Did Dale Earnhardt Save?

The February 19, 2006, Freakonomics column in the New York Times Magazine concerns NASCAR, or the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, which in a previous incarnation was known, quite fittingly, as the Stock-Car Auto Racing Society, or SCARS.

Crashing is a part of auto-racing, and dying is a part of crashing. But it has been five years since a top NASCAR driver has died. That death, however, was a big one: Dale Earnhardt, one of the most popular and successful drivers in history. He was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500, the super-fast race that kicks off the NASCAR season. This weekend is the fifth anniversary of Earnhardt’s death.

In their column, Dubner and Levitt set out to look at the numbers behind NASCAR’s crashes and driver deaths. And, by comparing these numbers to the crash and death rates on U.S. highways, they discovered some startling facts. Click here to read the article.

If you’d like to play around with some of the data that the article is based on, you can visit this National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website and this NASCAR site. Here, you’ll see the name, date, and winners of all 2005 Nextel Cup races. (You can view different years by using the drop-down menu in the top left corner.) You can also see the Busch and Craftsman Truck series races links in the top right corner of the webpage. For each race, you can click on the “Race Results” and “Race Review” links. If you follow the “Race Review” link, on the bottom of the new page there is a “Related Link” section that includes “Qualifying Speeds”; if that link isn’t available, click on “Practice Speeds.” If you follow the “Race Review” link and then click on “More,” you will see a lap-by-lap description of the race. An accident is counted as a crash when a caution is out and at least one car hits either another car or a wall. Spinouts without hitting anything do not count as crashes even if a caution flag is out.

And if you’d like to read a recent account of a year in the life of NASCAR racing, be sure to check out the tremendously entertaining Sunday Money, by Jeff MacGregor.