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The deaths of Earnhardt and others made racing safer (4-5-08)

By admin | April 4, 2008

The deaths of Earnhardt and others made racing safer


By Richard Allen


NASCAR and its fans lost one of the most popular figures the sport had ever known on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, it took tragedy to bring about improvement.

How often do we see it? An airplane crashes and new safety measures are enacted. A train derails and new safety measures are enacted. A truck crash spills deadly chemicals onto a highway and new safety measures are enacted.

The sad truth is, that is what happened after the untimely death of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. Since that 2001 race there have been at least five measures which dramatically improved the safety of stock car racing. The Car of Tomorrow, the Hans Device, SAFER barriers, kill switches and the implementation of full face helmets were all products of Earnhardt’s death as well as the deaths rising stars Kenny Irwin(2000), Adam Petty(2000) and Blaise Alexander(2001).

The ability of Michael McDowell to survive the horrific crash he experienced during qualifying for the Samsung 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway can almost certainly be attributed to one or several of these safety innovations.

For all of its faults, the Car of Tomorrow is without question safer than its predecessor. Fans may call it ugly and criticize its rear wing or its front splitter and drivers constantly complain about the car being difficult to drive. However, NASCAR’s new machine has shown it can take a hard crash and protect its passenger.

Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch had significant impacts with the walls in Las Vegas and all emerged from the crashes to race again. Furthermore, the fact that McDowell was able to walk away from his crash was nothing short of miraculous. An improved roll cage, the driver seated nearer the center of the car and impact absorbent crush panels have made the car the safest the sport has ever seen.

The HANS(Head and Neck Support) Device or the somewhat similar Hutchins Device were mandated by NASCAR in October of 2001. NASCAR decided to go exclusively with the HANS Device in 2005. Simply, the device is worn by drivers to hold their head and neck in place in order to prevent serious or even life threatening injuries to that part of the body.

Very few drivers used the device before 2001, but some began to implement it without being told to do so by NASCAR. There is no way to known how many injuries have been prevented or lives have been saved by the HANS but even if the number is one the relatively new safety tool is worth its weight in gold.

SAFER Barriers, or Steel and Foam Energy Reduction Barriers, were first developed by engineers at the University of Nebraska. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway began using them in 2002, and now, every track that hosts a NASCAR Sprint Cup race employs ‘soft walls.’

As the name implies, the barriers absorb energy from a crash thus preventing all of that energy from being transferred to the body of the driver.

The kill switch is an instrument that allows a driver to shut the engine of a car off with the push of a button. In the event of a car having its throttle hang open, the engine could be shut down and thus not have the car hit a wall at full speed. Kill switches were the result of the deaths of Irwin and Petty, both occurring at the New Hampshire International Speedway.

It was well known that Dale Earnhardt, Sr. preferred the open face helmet. By the time of his death many other drivers had begun to wear the fully enclosed helmet. Every driver competing in NASCAR today wears a full face helmet.

Now, it appears as though NASCAR’s next safety move needs to concern track clean up and drying. It seemed as if the use of ‘speedy dry’ played a role in McDowell’s crash on Friday. Also, the track drying procedures used in California should be carefully reviewed after early accidents in that race caused drivers to complain they were racing on a track not yet ready for competition.

The unfortunate truth is that it takes tragedy to bring about improvement. Perhaps if some or all of these measures had been put in place earlier, these drivers might still be with us today. Obviously, we can never know if that would be the case or not.

It is not that NASCAR, the drivers or teams were not concerned about safety prior to that awful stretch of unnecessary events in 2000 and 2001, but everyone involved had become somewhat complacent. The deaths mentioned in this article served to wake everyone up, just too late.

Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly column appears in The Mountain Press every Wednesday.

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