Why Won’t Anyone Examine My Helmet?

Buckling up my helmet
Nelson Skinner/Sopwith Motorsports

Have you ever had one of those enlightening moments when a truth really dawned on you? Call it an epiphany. Or maybe a revelation. Whatever it was, I just had one the other day.

I was going through technical inspection at a racetrack and my safety gear was laying on the hood of the car for review. My helmet was still inside its soft cloth cover when the tech inspector picked it up. He glanced inside the helmet and approved it.

He never removed the cover.

Now wait a second. How do you know a helmet is safe if you don’t inspect it? For all this guy knew, my helmet could have been made of glass. He never saw the helmet. He never inspected the helmet. He never even took it out of its protective cover.

He merely looked inside, saw that it had some silly sticker with a number on it, and assumed it was safe.

Fast-forward a few races. I’m going through tech again. This time a crack is found in the windshield of my production sports car. I’m told to replace it.

I ask the tech inspector for some advice on replacing the windshield. Before I can even begin to explain, he launches into a tirade about how the policies are not negotiable and that he’ll bar me from the series if I fail to replace the windshield exactly as ordered.

The real issue – not that he cared – was that replacement windshields for this car are several thousands of an inch thinner than the stock windshields. I wanted his opinion on which was safer, a heavy gauge original windshield with a crack or a thinner, aftermarket windshield without a crack.

It was a full two minutes before he regained sufficient composure to conduct an intelligent conversation. I explained the dilemma. The safety inspector responded with a blank stare, followed by, “Oh… well, I don’t care about that."

He didn’t care? How can tech inspectors not care about the safety of my windshield?

Simple… they don’t care because safety is not their concern. For all the pomp and circumstance, for all the posturing and propaganda, one indisputable fact stands out: we don’t have safety inspectors anymore. What we have are policy enforcers.

The goal of these so-called “inspections" is no longer to actually inspect anything, but rather to mandate the purchase of goods and services that the series thinks you ought to have. If you’ve purchased these items, the series assumes that you’re somehow automatically “safe." If you haven’t spent the amount of money they demand on the products they mandate, they assume you’re magically “unsafe."

This is what racing has become… a corporatized, policy-driven, one-size-fits-all mandate. And it’s a disgrace.

Policy is not an acceptable substitute for safety.

By issuing one policy after the next, race series have begun to think of themselves as masters. They are not. They are servants. They exist only to serve the needs of the racers. If policy is to be made, it is to be made individually by the people who wear the helmets, not those who inspect them.

Race series should stop pretending that they can better see to the safety of the racers than the racers themselves. They cannot. And the pretense is not convincing, especially when their “inspections" don’t entail actually examining the object of their alleged interest.

If we’re going to have inspections, they should be genuine. They should focus on the actual functionality of an item, not its date of purchase or how it matches up with corporate policies. They should offer suggestions and assistance, not demands and lectures.

Racers now view tech inspections as having about as much validity as an IRS audit. It is bureaucratic nonsense foisted upon them by people who consider policy to be god.

Maybe it’s time for a change.

Stephen Cox

Stephen Cox is a racing driver and CEO of Sopwith Motorsports Television Productions.

He currently hosts the Mecum Auto Auction and Super Cup Stock Car Series telecasts. His past television work includes:

  • Champ Car World Series
  • Indianapolis 500
  • NASCAR Winston West
  • Barber Dodge Pro Series
  • Paris-Dakar Rally
  • USAR ProCup stock car series

As a racing driver Cox has posted wins on ovals and road courses, in both full fender and open wheel cars. His career driving accomplishments include:

  • 14 career wins
  • 14 career poles
  • Mitsubishi factory test driver
  • 2004 GT Challenge Series champion
  • 2004 Championship Motorsports Association Rookie of the Year

Cox also authored the Small Team Sponsorship Guide for beginning sponsor-hunters, the classic book and seminar that redefined the way entry level teams attack corporate sponsorship.

"A class act with an incredible work ethic."
– Terry Lingner, IndyCar Series TV producer

"Stephen Cox came across as very knowledgeable… accessible… an insider, minus the jargon. Very good. I am a fan."
– Tim Mayer, Champ Car World Series

"I think we're at the end of what this car will do."
– Crew chief Robert Fox after Stephen brushed the wall while winning pole position at Winchester Speedway

"Stephen was first on the track and he quickly came to grips with the car… he ran consistently quicker laps during his 2-hour stint."
– VWmotorsport.com

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