The Frontstretch: That's History! NASCAR's Checkered (Flag) Past, One Story at a Time: Safety Firsts by Amy Henderson -- Sunday May 8, 2005

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With all the talk about “The Big One” at Talladega, and all the renewed attention that it focused on restrictor plate racing, I decided to take a closer look at restrictor plates and other safety rules NASCAR has mandated over the years, what prompted them, and what the ultimate outcome has been.

The carburetor restrictor plate is a thin, square, metal device with four holes in it, and when placed over the intake manifold of a racecar, it restricts airflow to the engine. Think running laps around your local high-school track while breathing through a straw and you have the idea. Less air means less speed. Plates were first introduced in 1987 after a couple of things happened. One, Bill Elliott put out a lap of 212.809 miles an hour on a qualifying run at Talladega. Two, Bobby Allison was involved in a crash, also at Talladega, in which his car got airborne and ripped into the catch fence; several pieces of the car flew into the stands, injuring fans. NASCAR realized that something had to be done about the speeds at Daytona and Talladega, and so was born the restrictor plate, to the eternal dismay of many drivers. Restrictor plates reduce the speed of a racecar to roughly 190 miles per hour.

Restrictor plates also sap the car of its throttle response, which causes cars to lose a tremendous amount of speed if the driver lifts of the throttle for a fraction of a second. It takes a relatively long time for the car to get back to full speed after even that slight lift. Coupled with the aerodynamics of racecars, which has changed significantly since plates were introduced, this causes cars to run in large, tight packs. Closing rates are incredibly fast, but often a driver can’t lift because he’d be run over from behind, and either a thrilling pass or a terrifying crash ensues. Many fans love this kind of racing; it produces a lot of passing and a lot of wreckage. But has the plate truly made racing safer? My vote is yes-and no. Slowing the cars down is good; taking away throttle response is dangerous. Still, we don’t know how superspeedway racing would have evolved without them.

One of the earliest safety innovations was the fuel cell. If you’ve seen one of the fires that can erupt when a fuel line breaks, just imagine what it might have looked like if a 22-gallon gas tank, like the one in a passenger car, had cracked open instead. Back in the dark ages of racing, when stock really meant stock, including the gas tank, fire was a much more common and dangerous enemy than it is these days. I couldn’t find one particular incident that led to the fuel cell, but the cell was first introduced, I believe, in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s. Fuel is now essentially stored in a big sponge, keeping it from spilling and causing a wall of fire across a racetrack or an explosion in the racecar. It’s one of NASCAR’s original safety rules, and it’s still as effective today as ever.

It used to be that when a racecar turned sideways or backward on a big, fast racetrack, the air underneath would hurl the car into the air, causing a scary flight for the driver inside coupled with the possibility of a car launching over the catch fence into a crowd of fans. Somewhere around 1992, Rusty Wallace amassed a lot of frequent flyer miles, getting airborne and barrel rolling through the tri-ovals at both Daytona and Talladega. In each instance, pieces flew off the car in all directions as it turned over and over. NASCAR had had enough of this for one season and soon roof flaps were mandated. These deploy when a car turns sideways, changing the airflow over the roof and usually keeping the car on the ground. It’s not foolproof, just ask Elliott Sadler, but fewer fines for flying without a license have been reported.

More recently, NASCAR was forced to look at a couple of issues after four drivers died of essentially the same injuries in four different crashes. Basilar skull fractures occur when the body, moving at a high rate of speed, is suddenly stopped. The deaths of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, Tony Roper, and Dale Earnhardt form this type of injury prompted the sanctioning body to mandate devices which protect the head and neck from this type of injury for all drivers. Unfortunately, the rule came too late to prevent the tragedies, but it was their unfortunate legacy. Some drivers were reluctant at first, but they eventually got more comfortable. Tony Stewart, the last holdout, eventually got so comfortable in his that he wore it to the 2001 awards banquet along with his tuxedo.

The accidents also prompted NASCAR to speed up development of a softer barrier, one that would absorb at least some of a car’s impact, thereby keeping the driver from absorbing all of it. Every oval track that hosts a Nextel Cup race will have SAFER barriers installed by the end of the 2005 season. Ricky Craven once said that drivers and fans would one day look back in amazement on the days when drivers actually ran into concrete walls. Those days are now here.

The impact of these last two safety innovations has yet to be fully measured. No touring series NASCAR driver has been lost while wearing a head and neck restraint, nor as the result of a crash into a SAFER barrier. Luckily, safety continues to evolve in racing. Pit crew members wear helmets. Stronger, taller fences shield fans.

Perhaps the most telling statement on the safety in NASCAR comes from a study that showed that if all of the safety features mandated on NASCAR racecars could be economically integrated into passenger cars, it is estimated that somewhere in the neighborhood of 98% of highway deaths could be avoided. They’re not failsafe, as we have been reminded. But, while tragedy always lurks nearby in this high-speed world, it has often been held at bay by these and countless other safety devices and regulations. And that, I am glad to say, is history.

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Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

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Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.