They say it all goes quiet.
One of the scariest scenarios to have to watch play out in racing is when a racecar gets turned at such an angle that it gets airborne. Even before the replays, it sometimes seems like slow motion. The car almost dances for a split second before reality careens in. Then, even watching on television, you can hear the car slam back to earth, and time moves double-quick to make up for the moment it stopped.
Drivers who have been in the situation say that in the moment the car takes flight, all goes quiet—until the return to earth.
Two cars flipped during Saturday’s (April 22) NASCAR Xfinity Series Ag-Pro 300 at Talladega Superspeedway; Blaine Perkins climbed from his car afterward but was transported to a local hospital for further evaluation and treatment. He returned home to North Carolina on Monday. Daniel Hemric wasn’t hurt when his No. 11 came to rest on its roof, but that scenario is always tense as the safety crew has to turn the car back over before they can get the driver out, and it seems to take an eternity.
Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race didn’t feature anything quite so spectacular. There were some bad blocks that led to typical superspeedway mayhem, and one triggered a scary incident when Kyle Larson spun into the path of Ryan Preece, resulting in what Preece called the hardest hit of his career. The roll cage on the right-hand side of Larson’s car was alarmingly mangled. Nobody wants to think about the elephant in the room: what if that had been the driver’s side?
NASCAR has done just about everything in its power to make the sport as safe as 40 high-powered, ton-and-a-half machines thrown together on an enclosed surface can be.
And it’s succeeded. There hasn’t been a fatality in a national series since 2001; 22 years now. At the time of Dale Earnhardt’s death, there were no mandatory head and neck restraints, no SAFER barriers encircling racetracks and no shock-absorbing foam surrounding the cockpit. Drivers weren’t even required to wear a full-face helmet.
Earnhardt’s fatality is the last under the NASCAR banner, and for two decades, drivers have walked away, sometimes banged up and sometimes with injuries that are career-ending, yes, but alive. The current Next Gen car raised concerns about rear-end collisions, which NASCAR has addressed since. Is there room for more?
There always is and always will be.
But there is one area of safety that NASCAR has not addressed much recently, and it has nothing to do with the racecars—except it’s what’s behind the wheel.
It’s not that drivers enter the sport looking to take unnecessary risks or cause wrecks. But as drivers come up younger, and with less experience in full-bodied stock cars, they also don’t always know how to avoid trouble.
Teenagers and young adults aren’t fully developed cognitively or emotionally. That will come with time, but the human brain isn’t done developing until age 25 or so. The last parts to come are not intelligence, but full emotional maturity. Youngsters have an innate sense of invincibility; they don’t feel as though they can get hurt—they know it intellectually, but they don’t understand it yet.
Coupled with a lack of seat time that their tender years just haven’t allowed for, that can mean an added level of danger. Most drivers handle themselves well, and even the older veterans in the Cup Series can make mistakes. But there is a way to lower that risk even further.
There was a time when drivers entered NASCAR’s top series older and hopefully wiser. An age of 30 wasn’t old for a rookie, and 25 was extremely young. Now some see drivers as damaged goods if they don’t win in the top series by that age. Age 30 is too old; a driver of that age is often seen as damaged goods.
So what if NASCAR changed the system to be safer and to ensure drivers have time to develop?
NASCAR’s acquisition of the ARCA Menards Series gives drivers a path into the current Cup cars. They’re different from asphalt late models, and many young drivers don’t come from asphalt late models but from dirt racing or sprint cars, some from the off-road or open-wheel ranks. Some get their start virtually and move to the real thing later. It’s all experience in things like decision-making and reaction time, but it’s only going to get harder.
A defined path through the NASCAR ranks would only help drivers succeed. Starting in the ARCA Menards Series East or West, 16 is a reasonable age [15 is the current minimum age] as long as the schedule sticks to tracks of a mile or less. Currently, the two series visit short tracks with 1-mile racetracks as the largest ovals and road courses.
To move up, one should have two full seasons at the lower level, which could be lowered to one under specific circumstances, such as a championship in the first year. That could mean, for a driver who proves himself to teams, he or she would be in the main ARCA series at 18, the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series at 20, Xfinity at 22 and Cup at 25 —all hard age limits in addition to the experience piece. Older drivers could test their way into a higher series at NASCAR’s discretion, but the sanctioning body has the final word on where they can start.
Not only would stricter rules on when and how a driver can move up make the sport safer in the long run (and yes, some drivers will still take risks and make ill-advised moves and no, it wouldn’t eliminate a driver having a lapse of judgment), but it might prove better for them in the long run.
Rushing a driver through the ranks does them no favors. Some come into the Cup Series long on talent but so short on experience in a Cup car against series competition that they’re practically set up to fail. One former Cup driver who came to stock cars from a primarily open-wheel background said that he came to Cup expecting a four-year learning curve after just one year in Xfinity cars. Not a lot of drivers are fortunate enough to be given that much time. If they had to have the seat time in lower series, it might give owners more time to evaluate them and lead to better opportunities while giving them the tools to keep those opportunities. For fans, that means better racing at every level of the sport.
The cars are safer this year than last. Concrete walls are a thing of the past, and head restraints are the norm and not an exception. NASCAR hasn’t seen a fatality in years. Adding an age limit to all national divisions in addition to experience at lower levels before being licensed in the top divisions could help ensure that the drivers are as safe as the cars they drive and that they have every chance to thrive in Cup competition for years.
About the author
Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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