A NASCAR driver missing a race due to two concussions within three weeks? Yeah, something is definitely wrong with that.
Since Dale Earnhardt Sr. passed away on the horrific last lap crash during the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR has made strides in safety like no other sport. But, when his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., had to miss not one, but two races due to a concussion during the latter part of the 2012 NASCAR season, everyone involved within the sport realized that more changes were necessary.
The sport hasn’t seen a death since Earnhardt Sr.’s and has made strides that no other sport has done. When the sport was created in 1948, the cars didn’t even have window nets to protect the drivers. In fact, the doors actually opened, unlike today where drivers enter the race car through the window opening. Since that time, NASCAR has done whatever it can to make sure the drivers, crews and fans are all safe.
In 2007, NASCAR’s, new car, the Car Of Tomorrow, made it’s debut at the Bristol Motor Speedway. The car had more safety innovations than any other new product that sport has ever seen. Besides the competition becoming as close as can be with the similar body frames for each of the manufacturers, the car had a rear-wing instead of the common spoiler which has been seen since the third generation of NASCAR stock cars which started in 1981. The fans didn’t like the look of the wing and neither did the drivers as it blocked a portion of their rear-view mirrors, even though that became a minor problem after dealing with the wing for nearly three years.
The new car was larger, built to handle heavier impacts which should help drivers minimize physical harm during an accident. On the drivers side door panel, designers of the car created an energy absorbing foam which would protect drivers when hit near the driver’s side door. It also came with a larger cockpit, which put the driver towards the center of the car, also protecting them.
When Michael McDowell flipped during a qualifying run at Texas in April of 2008, it was the first time that the new car had indeed, flipped over. The incident raised numerous questions about a car that was meant to stop drivers from having the risk of flipping over. But, over the next few seasons, the sanctioning body realized it is something that can’t be stopped, just minimized.
In 2010 at the Pocono Raceway, Elliott Sadler hit a small spot on the backstretch wall which didn’t happen to have a SAFER Barrier, something that is required at all NASCAR sanctioned tracks. The wreck was recorded at 90 times the force of gravity, which was the hardest wreck in NASCAR history according to NASCAR officials after the accident occurred. During the wreck, Sadler’s engine flew outside of the car and ended up several yards away from his parked car after it went several feet into the air. Thankfully, the only physical harm Sadler endured was a few scrapes from his seat belt, other than that, Sadler was fine, showing the durability of the new car.
The HANS Device had a lot to do with Sadler and McDowell not being injured throughout their wrecks. It costs roughly $500-$1,000 for the head and neck restraint, but it is definitely worth it. Many experts say that if Earnhardt Sr. had been wearing the HANS Device, the accident wouldn’t have been fatal.
Jim Downing, President of HANS Performance Products, has been attempting to make auto-racing as safe as it can be for several years. According to a press-release from Downing, the number of deaths in racing since 2001 has actually increased over the 10-year span compared to 1991-2001. The number of deaths has gone up from 144 to 171 which is startling considering the amount of changes made throughout all of the major racing series. But, when NASCAR announced that they were going to race at the Eldora Speedway only if they installed SAFER Barriers, the first questioned that should have been asked to track owner Tony Stewart should have been, “why aren’t SAFER Barriers installed already?” Instead, the negligence of the higher-ups just agreed to host a race at a track that has had a past possibility of harming competitors.
NASCAR’s 2013, sixth generation car, is considered to be more safer than the fifth generation which had a duration of just five years, the shortest stint for a type of car in the series. Safety has always been the number one priority in all of sports, not just NASCAR, but sometimes, the changes aren’t as severe as needed to be. Overall, the changes NASCAR has made should help provide innovations for other sports which should show the leadership skills which the series has owned up to over the past few decades. Providing fans, drivers and crews with the latest and greatest technology has shown that NASCAR cares about safety unlike any other sport.
Joseph Wolkin can be followed on Twitter at @JosephNASCAR.