Why The Wait?

Credit has to be given where credit is due. Over the last year important strides have been made in making NASCAR racing safer. All cars now carry on-board data recorders so NASCAR can study the forces involved in a wreck. Seat design has improved to a huge degree over the last couple years.

NASCAR began mandating all safety harnesses must be installed according to the manufacturer’s recommendations, not by a driver’s preference. Next month the Winston Cup cars will compete for the first time at a track with an impact absorbing (not soft!) wall when they visit Indianapolis.

Years down the road racing historians will probably see the adoption of head restraints, be it the HANS or the Hutchens device, as one of the three most important safety steps ever implemented in stock car racing. (With the others being the tire inner liner and the fuel cell.) I shudder to think how many fatalities might have occurred in the last two seasons were it not for the competitors deciding almost unanimously on their own to wear head restraints, and NASCAR finally adopting such devices as mandatory to save Tony Stewart, the last holdout, from himself.

But as of late, the discussion of safety, which was so dominant in this sport in the wake of the tragic loss of Dale Earnhardt last year, has gotten pushed onto the backburner. We’ve got a decent points battle to debate and handicap. We’ve got the red flag issues to get in an uproar about. Heck, we’re even hooting and hollering about Muppets.

But deep in the pit of my stomach I feel the fans, the media and the sanctioning body have gotten a little too complacent about safety lately, and I fear only in the wake of another tragedy will further progress be made.

While this NASCAR season has been death free, it has hardly been injury free. And there’s been a couple very hard hits lately. Brett Bodine’s flaming wreck at Daytona looked worse than it was, even before the evidence was destroyed by fire. Both Joe Nemechek’s Daytona wreck and Christian Elder’s Busch series qualifying wreck at ChicagoLand looked frighteningly similar to the crash that took Dale from us.

And this weekend we returned to New Hampshire International Speedway, the scene of two terrible tragedies in 2000. Bob Bahre, who owns NHIS, had proposed having the SAFER wall system used during this year’s Indy 500 in place at his track prior to this weekend’s event. He was willing to pay for the improvement. But when he requested NASCAR’s permission, he, and the media were told, the SAFER system must be tailored to each individual track.

What works at Indy won’t work at NHIS or any other track on the circuit. I can accept that. But what’s being done about it. Has this gentleman visited NHIS and made his recommendations on a system suited to that venue so it can be in place before the fall race? What other Winston Cup tracks has he visited and measured? How soon will all the tracks be lined with energy absorbing walls? The answer should be, as soon as humanly possible.

The discussion of energy absorbing systems for the front of the cars, the Humpy Bumper and a competitive design using a different substance, has dropped off the radar screen. We’re told the problem with offset frontal impacts is that the engine is the first component of signifigance to hit the wall, and it doesn’t yield. So what’s being done to change that? Humpy Wheeler said he could outfit the entire field with Humpy Bumpers in time for last year’s fall Charlotte race, but NASCAR said more study was needed. OK, it’s been seven months now. When are the results of that study due, and where on the real world tests of such devices?

Finally it seems the level of preparedness at some tracks regarding safety crews (both fire crews and rescue crews) is inconsistent at best. While well meaning and dedicated, the safety crews at Daytona didn’t acquit themselves well. That’s probably because they weren’t sufficient in numbers. It’s not like Daytona opened last year and no one expects huge wrecks during the race. Better to have too many safety personnel and have them sit around all night without having to respond, than to have too few and have them unable to rescue a driver from a burning car in time.

If NASCAR refuses to adopt a traveling safety crew like most professional racing series, they need at least to set stringent guidelines for the number of emergency crews, how they will be positioned and how they will be deployed in the aftermath of a wreck. Watch an open wheel race sometime. The safety crews often arrive on scene before the broadcasters realize there’s been a wreck.

The sport of stock car racing received a tremendous black eye last year when it came to its image as safety conscience. They’ve made a good start in correcting inadequacies of the past. But it behooves NASCAR at this juncture to try to make ours the safest racing series in the world proactively, rather than wait until another tragedy strikes and have to respond reactively.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2002

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