Several years ago, after a string of deaths and injuries in stock cars, Ricky Craven commented that someday everyone would look back at those days and wonder about how drivers were running into concrete walls. Craven’s words would prove prophetic as SAFER barriers replaced the concrete walls in the corners — the most likely place for a high speed impact at a racetrack. They’re now mandatory for tracks requesting NASCAR sanctioning for a national touring series.
The sport has seen other safety advances as well. Full-face helmets and head-and-neck restraints are now mandatory. Car bodies are filled with impact absorbing, fire retardant foam. They also have better crush zones and the seats are further from the roll cage bars than they used to be.
Most of these improvements came with a high cost. In a two-year span, NASCAR saw four drivers lose their lives in high-speed impacts. Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin, Jr. were both killed in eerily similar crashes at New Hampshire during two separate race weekends in 2000 when their throttles hung open as they entered a tight turn three. Truck Series driver Tony Roper died during a race at Texas Motor Speedway later that same year. Less than six months after that, Dale Earnhardt lost his life on the last lap of the Daytona 500 as cars he owned finished first and second. During those two seasons of 2000 and 2001, two ARCA drivers (Scott Baker and Blaise Alexander) were also killed on the racetrack in similar-type cars, with a third, Eric Martin, losing his life in 2002. Steve Park survived a NASCAR Nationwide Series crash in the fall of 2001, but suffered permanent damage.
These drivers did leave a powerful legacy on the sport; since Earnhardt’s death, no driver has been killed in a NASCAR national touring series race or an ARCA event since (though there have been five deaths in NASCAR’s various regional series, plus Martin’s ARCAdeath in a practice crash). We’ve seen some horrible crashes since then. Mark Martin hit the wall in Charlotte with an impact that looked remarkably like the ones that killed Earnhardt and Alexander, but Martin walked away unharmed. Michael McDowell hit the wall during qualifying at Texas driver’s side first and then barrel rolled down the track. The car was destroyed, but McDowell was uninjured. There have been others, and some drivers suffered injuries, but in the end, the sport hasn’t seen a tragedy in a race car in more than a decade.
Meanwhile, the cars are getting faster. The means they’re putting more strain on pieces and parts, more load on tires, more G-forces on the drivers. But still, the drivers have been safe, because of the HANS devices and restraint systems, the crush zones and theSAFER barriers.
Does that mean NASCAR should let them keep on getting faster?
No, and next year, that won’t be as much of an issue as NASCAR has said they will take steps to reduce horsepower, but for now, it’s something that needs to be looked at carefully. Drivers hit speeds of almost 220 mph earlier this week in a tire test at Michigan — that’s well over the 213 that prompted the addition of restrictor plates at Daytona and Talladega, and while plates should be a last resort, something needs to give.
In addition, there are still incidents of drivers hitting the wall in areas not covered bySAFER barriers and of fan safety issues when cars have hit catch fences. Some tracks have been proactive, adding more SAFER fencing, others have resisted and will likely continue to resist until it’s mandated to have the barriers on all concrete walls around the track.
Some people, fans and those within the sport, don’t see the problem with this. After all, there’s an inherent danger in racing, always has been. Drivers know they risk injury or death every time they strap in, and they strap in anyway.
Sorry, but that’s no reason not to continue to make the sport safer. Maybe, to some, the fact that there is a risk of death makes it exciting. But an actual death is far from exciting, and if there is something that can be done to prevent it, it needs to be done. Whether that means developing new and better technologies for the cars, adding more SAFER barriers (and mandating them on every surface at every track — you, too, Eldora), or slowing them down when the speeds get out of hand, it all needs to happen.
As a sport, it’s been easy to grow complacent in the face of the safety advances that have taken place. Some of the fans who came to love the sport in the boom of the early 2000’s don’t know the anguish that reverberates through the entire NASCARcommunity following a fatal accident. Hopefully they never will. But in order to make that a reality, NASCAR can’t sit back on their laurels.
Even after the cars are slowed down in 2015, they’ll be running speeds as fast as Petty and Irwin were running at the time of their deaths. Even if a driver isn’t killed doesn’t mean he’s okay. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. missed two championship races in 2012 after suffering two concussions in a short span of time. Given that the effects of a concussion are cumulative over time, there’s still room for improvement.
To give NASCAR credit, they have continued to research safety and to make new rules in that area. The surprising part is that many fans and some media question the need for it. Many are so focused on the entertainment value of a race that they loathe for NASCAR to do anything to slow the cars down. They’re willing to write off the danger of 220 mph. They’ve become complacent to the risk, relying on the HANSdevices and crush panels and SAFER barriers to prevent tragedy.
The truth is, the cars do need to be slowed down. Not only does that make the racing safer, it makes the racing better. That’s a win-win, isn’t it?
Much of the reason for the complacency is innovation that came about because of tragedy. Complacency shouldn’t be the legacy of Petty and Irwin, Roper and Earnhardt, Baker and Alexander. Continued innovation and better safety should be what they paid the ultimate price for, not cheap entertainment. Changes still need to be made, there is still work to be done. The mindset that it’s not necessary simply isn’t needed.