Speed, Safety and Earnhardt

Part 2 - Safety
by Pete McCole
February 16, 2002

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Although Earnhardt's death was NASCAR's fourth on-track fatality within nine months, his status as an icon of the sport brought the issue of driver safety under intense scrutiny by the drivers, the owners, the media, and the fans. Some questioned whether NASCAR was doing enough, even going so far as to accuse NASCAR of a cover up during their investigation of the Earnhardt crash. 

Safety has always been a top concern for NASCAR, only now after Earnhardt's death has the issue gotten widespread attention. With all changes implemented in the months following the tragedy, most drivers and owners are satisfied with what NASCAR has done to improve safety.

"NASCAR has done safety before this (Earnhardt's death), we were working on safety projects, before this happened, on our cars at Daytona." Richard Childress said. "NASCAR spends a lot of time, a lot of money, and has people dedicated. We don't go to the press everytime we come out with a safety feature. There's a lot of thing being accomplished, today it's in the press a lot more than it was, but NASCAR has done a fantastic job."

"I'm extremely pleased with what they've done," said Jeff Gordon, the 2001 Winston Cup champion. "I like the group NASCAR has put together to look at safety. All the drivers have given their input to NASCAR, I've certainly given my ten cents every chance I've gotten."

"You don't always know you have a safety problem until a problem occurs. I think the way NASCAR analyzes crashes and because there was so much attention because it was Dale (Earnhardt) it made us all push safety to a whole new level. If it can happen to the best in our sport, it can happen to any of us."

"I'm very satisfied with what has taken place along the line of safety in our sport," said Dale Jarrett, the 1999 series champion. "Obviously, we've gotten the drivers compartments much safer, our cars are safer, our crews are safer now, so we are heading in the right direction."

"Obviously, the sport's never going to be 100% safe. You're driving cars at close to 200 mph, there is an element of danger that goes along with that, but let's not stop just because we think we've got it to where it is much safer now. Can we make it safer? Yes."

"We take a look at those things from bad experiences. It's really too bad that we can't foresee the future a little more on those things," said Robby Gordon. "It's real unfortunate that we have to lose someone like Dale Earnhardt for them to really start taking a serious look at it. NASCAR's done a good job, they don't want to put themselves into a liable situation for mandating certain things.

"I'm glad they mandated the head and neck restraints, I think that's a plus, I'm glad they've adapted to the carbon fiber seats I've been used to in the Indy-cars. I see them doing everything they can to keep the race teams cost down so we can run 36 races a year and put on a good show for the fans and also taking a look at safety for the drivers and safety for the fans as well."

To further improve safety, NASCAR announced that data recorders would be in all the cars for all NASCAR-sanctioned races during Speedweeks, and that NASCAR is continuing tests on energy-absorbing barriers. NASCAR has also hired several key people including a crash investigator, a design engineer, aerodynamics engineer and medical liaisons for each of NASCAR's three national divisions. They have also raised the minimum age requirement for drivers to 18 years of age.

These are all welcome changes by the drivers, who all agree the safety of the sport has increased dramatically over last year.

"I think our cars are definitely safer, but, unfortunately, it's taken some tragedies -- not only Earnhardt, but Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty." Ricky Rudd said. "It's unfortunate thinking that those guys passed on before we've gotten our cars to the point where they are safer today"

"I think our race cars are a lot safer now, the way we mount our seat belts, the way the seats are mounts, the head restraints, that was way overdue, especially the head restraints" Jeff Green said, "After we lost Adam Petty, we knew that he broke his neck, and if he had a head restraint on that probably wouldn't have happened. Chances are it might have still happened, but his chances would have been greater to live if he'd had a head restraint."

"I applaud NASCAR, sure they can't just jump at any conclusion, they had to weigh things out to make sure, but I applaud for what they did. They are definitely looking out for us drivers and crews, so I applaud them for that."

"There's been a tremendous gain in safety issues. The effort and dedication to making not only the race cars but the racing environment safer is there." Jeff Burton said, "We are in the infancy of a program that is going to take a while to produce a lot of results. You just don't do these things overnight, but the main thing is that the commitment is there and the dedication is there and that's how it all starts."

NASCAR isn't alone in their quest to make the sport safer. This past January, the sanctioning body approved a new composite seat developed by PPI Motorsports, who also own Ricky Craven's #32 Winston Cup car. The seat is designed to minimize the impact from crashes, especially side-impact crashes similar to the one that injured Winston Cup driver Steve Park at Darlington last year. 

"The basic structure is designed to contain the driver," said PPI Motorsports owner Cal Wells. "Consequentially the drivers weight doesn't build inertia and fold the seat and take the (seat) belts out of the their most geometrically efficient position. That's added by the fact that we can hold on to the driver's head, HANS or no HANS."

"This seat, side to side, whether you wear a HANS or not, will be a huge help."

Although NASCAR has approved the seat, only Ricky Craven and Kyle Petty have installed them in their cars.

The racecars themselves are also getting some attention. The stock cars of today don't have nearly as much up in front of the driver's compartment as the cars from a decade ago, there's not nearly as much to bear the brunt of a crash. As a result, much of the energy from a crash is absorbed by the driver, and not the car. Something to lessen the impact of the crash on the driver might make for safer cars.

Last May, Lowe's Motor Speedway President and General Manager H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler unveiled a new device being tested to diminish the lethal force delivered to a driver in a high-speed, frontal impact.

Developed by Paul Lew, a Las Vegas-based composite materials engineer, designer and manufacturer, the "Humpy Bumper" as it's called, is a bumper-like, impact-absorption device designed to fit under the sheet-metal skin of a stock car. The new bumper is also designed to withstand the common bumps and rubs of stock car racing and remain intact until the front of the car impacts a hard surface at high speed. The bumper is currently undergoing further testing, but NASCAR has not yet approved the bumper for use.

Lowe's Motor Speedway has also experimented with soft wall technology for possible use at the facility. Other tracks, like Watkins Glen International and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, have also used energy-absorbing barriers.

Safety has always been there, and it always will be there. That is one message every driver wants to get across - it's safer now, but there's always more that can be done.

"I know that are still a lot of things that are taking place as far as looking into soft walls and other safety measures and I feel quite certain that within the near future we're going to hear about a few other changes that NASCAR is going to mandate for us." Jarrett said, "The only thing that I will ask of them is let's not stop here - we can always continue to make it safer, there's going to newer things out there that are going to us to be safer."

"I think it's important to understand something about safety and this is what's so difficult about safety in anything -- not just motorsports -- is that it never can stop." Jeff Burton said, "You can't build a kid's bicycle helmet good enough, it can always be better." 

"As we learn things and as we try things, we will continue to make this sport safer, but it can only be done with information such as the black box and a continued effort to make it better. But it can't stop."

  For more information on the Humpy Bumper, see our  Story

The author can be contacted nascar@autoracing1.com

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Other Editorials

Speed, Safety, Earnhardt Part 3  2/17/02

Speed, Safety, Earnhardt Part 2  2/16/02

Speed, Safety, Earnhardt Part 1  2/15/02

UAW-GM Motorsports Media Tour Day 5  1/19/02

UAW-GM Motorsports Media Tour Day 4  1/18/02

UAW-GM Motorsports Media Tour Day 3  1/17/02

UAW-GM Motorsports Media Tour Day 2  1/16/02

UAW-GM Motorsports Media Tour Day 1  1/15/02

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