Nearly 10 years after the death of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, motorsports in general, but stock car racing in particular, is verifiably safer because of earnest scientific advances, say leading physicians tasked with project. Those advances, they contend, have not changed the nature of racing and would be a worthwhile tradeoff either way.
While race fans obviously do not wish harm upon their heroes, they have long been titillated by the lure and evasion of doom. And the question remains whether a generation of NASCAR drivers that has emerged at the Cup level in the safest equipment ever prepared has a true respect for actions and consequences at high speeds.
Ken Schrader, who was just a few feet from Earnhardt when he suffered fatal injuries to the base of his skull after nosing into the Turn 4 wall, had his opinions when asked at the annual PRI Trade Show panel discussion if there is a perception Sprint Cup is “too safe.”
“I think that’s hurt our sport some and I think kids that are making way too much money getting out complaining about having a frickin’ dream job hasn’t helped either,” said Schrader, whose No. 36 Pontiac was collected by Earnhardt’s iconic No. 3 Chevrolet on Feb. 18, 2001 and taken into the concrete wall, which is now swathed in an impact-reducing SAFER barrier.
“I remember when we used to actually think about (the ramifications of impact), you know? This could hurt, you know? Yeah, if (young drivers) don’t know what it is ... The SAFER barrier’s taken a third of it out to start with, and then the seats we have now, and the restraint systems and the HANS, it’s no big deal anymore. I hadn’t been in a Cup car in a year and a half and I got in the car at Daytona to do drafting practice for the shootout and I’m thinking “I’m not sure this is the smartest thing I signed up to do” and we were quick and I was sitting in this $15,000 seat, strapped in this new COT car with my HANS on and SAFER barriers and I’m thinking “What’s going to happen? Something’s going to have to come in from the top to get me.”
Schrader doesn’t advocate a roll-back of safety advances, but is virtually alone in his willingness to assert that the reduction of fear has damaged racing. Former Cup champion Dale Jarrett, now an ESPN analyst, suggested in a New York Times story in February that the perception of diminished danger might not be palatable to some fans. Current drivers often bristle at the question.
“It’s so much different and I think it’s hurt the sport some,” Schrader said. “You watch (Steve) Kinser and (Dickie) Gaines and them smoke around them tracks in the Midwest knowing every year there’s a couple of those (sprint car) guys, it was their last year because something happened to them. It made a difference.”
Dr. Terry Trammell, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in motorsports injuries, acknowledged safety innovation had changed the game, but said the evolution of the driver as a corporate spokesman had more of an impact than an over-confidence because of equipment.
“We went through an era when drivers literally said, ‘Hey, I can’t get hurt and if I do, you’ll fix me’,” Trammell said. “Fortunately, that mentality has gone away to “I want to be sure I have the best circumstances to prevent an injury,” and when one occurs they’re very analytical about what happened.”
Safety advances, including SAFER barriers — steel and foam pads that line track walls — first advocated in open wheel racing, new personal restraint systems, kill switches, and hardier stock cars have quelled a rash of serious and fatal injuries in 2000 — including the deaths of truck series driver Tony Roper and Cup drivers Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty — preceding Earnhardt’s death.
“I don’t think fans want to see someone have a fatal accident or even get hurt, but they like that element of danger,” said Jerry Gappens, president of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where both Irwin and Petty were killed. “The sport’s gotten safer and had to. Rodeo finals were going on in Las Vegas when we were out there and I saw the cowboys had on vests and helmets. That took a little getting used to, but the whole goal was to stay on that bull and to do that, there aren’t too many humans in the world that can do it, especially at that level. There aren’t too many humans that can do what Ken Schrader did with a race car, but we don’t want to see our heroes die, either.”
No NASCAR driver has died on track in nearly a decade and Jerry Nadeau, who sustained serious head trauma during a practice crash at Richmond in 2003 – is the last Sprint Cup driver to suffer a career-ending injury. NASCAR introduced its boxier, repeatedly-proven safer race car fulltime in 2007. Though NASCAR officials don’t declare that a certain scientific advance saved a given driver in a given crash, the common sight of drivers walking away from ghastly accidents has reinforced the point.
Elliott Sadler’s headfirst crash into a right-angle of earth-reinforced metal walls at Pocono this summer — replicating the most deadly of pre-2007 scenarios – was a stark demonstration of the new survivability of racing. Sadler said NASCAR officials informed him it was the hardest impact ever recorded by internal safety monitors. “If I can get out of that and walk through that, (the car) did its job,” Sadler said after the accident.