For the casual fan, NASCAR has become popular over the years for their impressive crashes. Take Carl Edwards getting air, and slamming into the fence at Talledega, or Ryan Newman sitting upside down in turn 3 at Daytona, as he waits for help to turn his car over to get him out. Or take the normal every Sunday crash that leaves cars crushed like a pop cans, and debris scattered all over the track.
Over the years NASCAR has taken pride in making this a safe sport (considering the obvious dangers). With speeds of 200 miles per hour, 43 drivers on the track at one time, and 3500lbs cars, it takes amazing technology to keep these drivers safe each weekend. But that same technology that helps keep these drivers safe, is also being used to figure out how to make the cars go faster.
One thing that a lot of NASCAR fans, or casual fans may not realize, is how venerable the spectators are at these events. As cars reach speeds of 200 mph, they easily become air-borne if turned around backwards in an accident. These cars, and debris can easily make their way into innocent spectator’s seats with little warning.
To make sure this is an unlikely event, NASCAR has tethered all parts of the car that can come lose to make sure hoods, deck lids, and other parts alike will not go slicing through their air, into the stands. In 2003 in Daytona in July NASCAR had an eye opening event. The hood from Robby Gordon’s car was impacted in such a way, the hood flew from the car, went 40-50 feet in the air, and then landed in the stands, injuring one spectator. Due to new rules requiring such items to be tethered to the cars, this may have been the last event like this we will see.
Perhaps one of the most dangerous threats the fans would face, would be a wild tire flying off a car during an accident. Now very rarely does a tire come off a car, but in the case where the pit crew does not get the tire on tight (snugly bolting down the 5 lug-nuts), its certainly a risk. At speeds of 150-200 MPH, a 60lb tire could bounce up over a fence and pose a threat to any fan. However if the lug-nuts are still bolted to the studs of the axle, the tethers will also hold the tire within the racing walls, keeping the fans safe.
Those are about the only two threats the fans face on race day. If you have survived the race, the last thing you have to do is survive the parking lot, and the drive home (sometimes equally as impressive as watching cars running inches apart at 180 miles per hour).
For many of us, we remember one tragic event in NASCAR 10 years ago, that has been the source of much needed research, and attention. The major event was the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. Since the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr, NASCAR, and other forms of racing have taken a much needed deeper look at safety. During the 2001 Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt hit the wall at around 180 MPH. The crash looked as casual as any we had seen before. However it was a perfect storm, of speed, angle, and lack of mandating safety equipment for all drivers, resulting in his death.
NASCAR, and other forms of racing, have now instituted “safer barrier” wall systems. This is a floating wall inside the original wall, with foam and steal separating the two walls. The concept? When a car impacts this wall, it will give way making the impact much softer than hitting a concrete wall at the same speed.
Who knows if the safer barrier wall has saved any lives, but it certainly has the drivers impressed. Just last week at Las Vegas, Jeff Gordon blew a right front tire entering turn 3. At this point in the car you are at the point of no return, and at the mercy of your equipment. If something gives way (tires, breaks, steering) you are just along for the ride. His tire blew at the bottom of the track, some 90-100 feet away from the wall at speeds around 180 MPH. After his impact with the wall, that ended his day, and destroyed his car, he commented to his crew “that was not the impact I was expecting.”
Jeff’s comments was a direct reflection to the efforts put up by NASCAR, and all the money spent by track owners in installing these new walls. Sunday, after Sunday, we see drivers pound these walls with outstanding force, and each Sunday they get out of their cars, and walk away.
This technology of the saffer barrier, combined with the hans device has greatly reduced the risk of driver injury in the sport. After Dale Earnhardt’s tragic crash in Daytona, the hans device was popularized. The hans device is basically a seatbelt for the head, and it meant to keep the head, and neck, inline with the body during a crash.
While the drivers are fastened into their car seats with a 5 point harness system, the head, and neck are had been left with only a helmet for protection. Take the size and weight of the helmet sitting on the drivers shoulders, and you have a recipe for disaster.
As a car makes impact, and suddenly is slowed or stopped, the body wants to move in the direction the car was going. The 5 point harness system does it’s job to stop the body’s momentum, however the head has nothing to prevent it’s movement forward. The end result is Basilar skull fracture, and this almost always results in immediate death. In fact this is the number one cause of death in racing.
Many thought this device was invented after the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr in 2001. In fact it was invented in the 1980s by a professor of biomechanical engineering at Michigan State. The device had been around for years before Dale Earnhardt’s tragic crash, however some racers felt that it was a device that would create more harm than good. Dale Earnhardt even called it “that damn noose.”
Looking back now it seems silly to push a safety device aside, but thats easily said 10 years later. Many of the drivers thought this device would hinder their vision inside the car, resulting in more accidents. Few drivers ever tried the device in the early stages of development, but quickly discounted its purpose, calling it uncomfortable, and dangerous.
Racing has always been dangerous, but with the hans device, coupled with the new safer barrier, racing has become much safer. As NASCAR continues to spend money of safety, I am sure there are things we will look at 10 years from now, shake our head and say “how dangerous was that!”
It’s a two way street in NASCAR. Teams will spend money on research and development to make their cars go faster, while NASCAR will spend their money on research and development to find out how to make these cars, and drivers safer.
The following is a list of NASCAR drivers who died in crashes because of Basilar skull fracture.
Kenny Irwin Jr.
J. D. McDuffie