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Nascar's greatest tragedy revisited

2011-02-15 08:38

Chris Jenkins

TOUGH ENOUGH?: Despite being America’s most popular motorsport, Nascar’s outlaw roots mitigated against proper crash safety regulations for years.

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida - Michael Waltrip still remembers what he felt the first time he smacked into one of the impact-absorbing safer barriers that sprouted on racetrack walls after Dale Earnhardt's death.

Or, rather, what he didn't feel.

As his car skidded toward the wall, a thought flashed through Waltrip's mind: He was planning a holiday but figured he now would be headed to hospital instead.

"We were going to Costa Rica the next day," Waltrip said. "As soon as it blew, I thought, 'I'm not going anywhere. I'm going to be eating out of a straw is what's going to happen to me'."

And then... nothing.

"I braced myself and went up and hit it, and I was like, 'That didn't hurt! That didn't hurt at all!'" Waltrip said.

Like so many drivers since Earnhardt died, Waltrip walked away unscathed.


With the 10-year anniversary of Earnhardt's fatal accident looming at Daytona International Speedway this week, Nascar's legacy can be seen every time one of today's drivers waves to the crowd and remembers to thank his sponsors on TV after a crash that might have sent him to the hospital - or worse - not so long ago.

Earnhardt's loss was the wake-up call that caused a safety revolution, so much so that no driver has died since on the track in Nascar's top three divisions. It was a major change for a sport that had been at the back of the pack when it came to drivers' safety.

"If you were in my shoes 10, 11 years ago, and you said to me then, '10 years from now all these things are going to happen' I'd have said 'You're nuts. There's not the willingness, the mindset, the dedication; it will never happen,"' Jeff Burton said. "I would have been wrong. We take for granted a lot of stuff. Drivers coming in today have no concept of what this was like back then... no concept."

Earnhardt's death, and the national scrutiny it brought to Nascar, resulted in several significant safety improvements. Perhaps most important, teams adopted the HANS device, a head and neck restraint collar being used in other forms of auto racing but largely ignored in Nascar until Earnhardt's death.

RING OF DEATH: Ten years ago a crash at the kind of ovals Nascar raced on was like playing Russian roulette…

Head and neck restraints are now required in Nascar and may be responsible for preventing several deaths or serious injuries. Safer barriers, impact-absorbing walls, were being developed before Earnhardt was killed and increased interest and investment from Nascar accelerated their implementation. Today the so-called "soft" walls line tracks from coast to coast.


Looking back, drivers can't believe how unsafe their seats were before Earnhardt's death. "(Today's seats) compared to his seat? Night and day," Robby Gordon said. "I don't know how to explain it any other way than that but that's what he chose to drive in and that's what made him comfortable in all those races prior to that.

"Us race-car drivers, we become invincible - this is what I've done for ever, and it hasn't hurt me."

Since then, teams have switched to carbon-fibre seats similar to those used in open-wheel racing and installed braces to prevent drivers' heads from violently snapping from side to side during a hard hit.


Then came Nascar's new chassis design, formerly referred to as "the Car of Tomorrow" - another big step forward in safety, designed to shield drivers from impacts.

Still, drivers know racing has risks, and another death could be waiting around the next turn.

"It's safer today than it's ever been, but it's still not safe," Burton said. "You spend enough time investigating it, you understand what actually happens internally when you hit something.

"This is not a safe endeavour. It's safer, but it's still not safe."


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