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Crashes of Wheldon and Johnson show safety must always be at forefront

By admin | October 17, 2011

By Richard Allen

In the wake of two frightening crashes over the past weekend, the need for all involved in racing to remain vigilant in regard to safety has been demonstrated. Racing has always been and will always be a dangerous sport. But that does not mean danger has to be allowed to win without a fight.

Unfortunately, it was shown this weekend that danger remains a constant threat when IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon was killed as a result of a horrific crash during the running of a race for that series at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The defending Indianapolis 500 champion was pronounced dead after exhaustive efforts by emergency personnel to save him failed. No doubt, the series is looking into the exact cause of his death and will make changes to prevent another such tragedy.

On a more positive note, however, a wreck by NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson during Saturday night’s Sprint Cup race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway showed that not every hard crash has to end tragically.

Late in the Bank of America 500, Johnson was racing for position with Kasey Kahne when his car began to slide sideways. Johnson attempted to correct the slide but his efforts resulted in the car turning hard to the right and slamming into the outside wall. The impact was so great that the rear wheels of the #48 car lifted several feet in the air upon contact. Johnson’s crash was eerily similar to the one that claimed the life of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

That wreck showed that safety can be improved and racing injuries and deaths do not have to be accepted as “part of the sport”.

After Earnhardt’s death, which had been preceded by the deaths of Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin during the previous season, NASCAR set out to make some significant changes that resulted in Johnson being able to walk away from his Saturday night incident.

For all the reasons to dislike the so called Car of Tomorrow, there can be no denying the machine currently used in the Sprint Cup Series is safer than any of its predecessors. The car’s width and height were changed as well as crush panels added to allow the driver to withstand harder impacts than ever before.

While the CoT is criticized for a number of reasons, and many of them justified, the car improved safety for those who participate, and that is a good thing.

Aside from the car, NASCAR implemented other changes as well. Driver seats and helmets were improved along with head and neck restraints. Cutoff switches and other devices to control stuck accelerators were added. All of those mandates have almost certainly prevented injuries or worse over the past ten years.

And perhaps most importantly, the tracks themselves have been improved. SAFER barriers are now in place at every oval track that hosts Sprint Cup races to soften the blow of wall impacts. Road course facilities have added sand pits and runoff areas as a means of slowing out of control cars.

There is no question that NASCAR and most other forms of racing are far safer today than they were ten years ago. But the leaders of the sport must never become complacent.

Racing is inherently dangerous. That does not mean death or injury has to be accepted as part of the sport and a blind eye cast on obvious hazards. Fortunately, Jimmie Johnson is living proof that improvements can be and have been made. Unfortunately, Dan Wheldon is not. Hopefully the trend toward improved safety will continue so that his death will not have been in vain.

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3 Responses to “Crashes of Wheldon and Johnson show safety must always be at forefront”

  1. Chris Fiegler Says:
    October 17th, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    That was a terrible way to end the IZOD IndyCar Series for 2011 with Dan Wheldon Killed in the IZOD IndyCar Series World Championship at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway at the age of 33 on Sunday October 16,2011. I Do Not Remember a Driver Killed on the Final Race of an Auto Racing Series Season.

  2. Charles Stiemly Says:
    October 18th, 2011 at 8:46 am

    Chris, veteran ARCA driver and occasional NASCAR driver Grant Adcox was killed in the final race of the 1989 NASCAR season, though there are some that say he had a heart attack when he crashed that day at Atlanta. And let’s not forget Greg Moore was killed in the 1999 CART season finale at what is now known as Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA.

  3. Mr. Tony Geinzer Says:
    October 19th, 2011 at 7:28 pm

    Rich, Greg Moore still strikes a nerve a dozen years later and Dan Wheldon to me was just as personal if not more worse as I actually met the guy.