Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday July 12, 2013
They cheated; they should be penalized!
This is NASCAR’s problem; they shouldn’t get in trouble for that.
After 16 Sprint Cup teams and an additional 15 Nationwide teams were found with unapproved spacers on the roof flaps of their cars, most of the talk was about whether or not there should be hefty penalties for the teams. Was the rule clear? Was it a grey area? Or had that many teams really found an advantage.
As it usually is, the truth was somewhere in the middle; the spacers were unapproved, but NASCAR had let them pass inspection previously, muddying the waters.
And you could make an argument either way, really. On one hand, advantage or no, the teams were tampering with safety equipment—that’s worthy of a penalty for sure. But, since the cars had passed previous inspections, it put the issue in the area of a similar incident last year when the No. 48 was penalized (and subsequently had the penalty reduced on appeal) for a part that had passed several previous inspections. Added to that hiccup this time was that NASCAR admitted that officials had been overlooking that area for weeks.
Wait—NASCAR wasn’t thoroughly inspecting a part of the car that’s there for driver safety and the focus was on whether or not the teams would lose points or get a fine? Really? That was the story most people got out of this?
Let me repeat that: NASCAR wasn’t thoroughly inspecting a part of the car that’s there for driver safety.
That should have been what every team, media member, and fan was railing about once it came out that shoddy inspections were the reason that nobody had caught the problem before 31 teams were doing it wrong. But instead, everyone was worried about who was cheating.
While policing the sport is important, this should be a major warning bell; it’s been a dozen years now since a driver was killed in one of NASCAR’s national touring series, and that’s fantastic. But as the months go by, are NASCAR and the race teams themselves taking driver safety for granted? NASCAR wasn’t properly inspecting roof flaps, which are designed to pop up if the car gets turned sideways, helping to keep it from getting airborne, a dangerous scenario for both driver and fans or crewmen in the vicinity.
Did the spacers in question affect the roof flaps’ ability to do their job? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean NASCAR didn’t need to be inspecting the installation of the flaps on every car, every week, along with each and every other safety-oriented part of the cars. And shame on the teams for even thinking of altering anything having to do with a safety device. Sure, they want to be as competitive as possible and should work every grey area in the book to that end—it’s their job. But tampering with anything designed to keep the driver from getting hurt is going too far.
And NASCAR should have caught the first team to alter the spacers and they should have heavily penalized them at that time, really making an example of them so that every other team would think three times about doing it again. But they didn’t, and by this week, it was too late.
It’s disturbing that NASCAR has become so complacent as to overlook safety equipment during an inspection process that now includes using lasers to make sure that the body alignment is within its minuscule tolerances. They’re measuring parts and pieces to thousandths of inches…and nobody bothered to look closely enough at the roof flaps to see that there were violations all over the garage. Some of the confiscated spacers were crudely homemade jobs, cut from pieces of pipe—surely those would have been obvious at a glance.
Complacency in the area of safety isn’t an option in a high-risk sport. Not only should NASCAR be constantly searching for new and better ways to keep the drivers as free from harm as is possible when they strap into 3300-pound missiles every week, but they should be constantly vigilant about the ones already in place. Tracks should be routinely checked to make sure the SAFER barriers are in perfect working condition and scrutinized to see if there are areas that should be protected, before they find out the hard way. As we saw from Denny Hamlin’s brutal crash and resulting injury at Fontana, that’s not happening to the level it should.
And a few months later, it’s become apparent that not only has NASCAR been lax in making sure tracks are up to snuff, but they have also been neglecting to adequately inspect critical safety components on the racecars for weeks, if not for months. And that has to lead to the question of what else NASCAR is overlooking that could ultimately cause serious injury—or worse—to a driver (or to a crewman or a fan). Are they carefully checking the expiration dates on seatbelts, helmets, and HANS devices? Is each and every wheel, hood, and deck lid tether being looked at every weekend? When they tear down a car after a race or approve a new chassis in the R&D Center, is the integrity of the roll cage being addressed, or just whether it fits competition standards? Are they checking the impact foam in the door areas closely?
A few months ago, we all thought the answer to these questions was an obvious affirmative. Now, after Hamlin’s hit on the unprotected concrete wall at Fontana (a track owned by the France family) and the failure to look at the installation of the roof flaps for many weeks, can we be sure? Can teams and drivers and their families be sure? There’s doubt now, and that’s both shameful and frightening.
But the talk this week was of penalties, fines and suspensions, not of driver safety. After all, it’s been twelve long years since Mike Helton squared his shoulders and told a stunned audience “We’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.” After Earnhardt’s untimely death (one that might have been preventable with today’s safety innovations), it seems that the driver’s last, and perhaps greatest legacy, would be the safety innovations that were the focus of the entire industry after his fatal crash. And now, we’ve learned that these are no longer NASCAR’s greatest concern, that inspecting other areas of the cars to protect the NASCAR world from cheaters has taken the front seat over scrutinizing the proper installation and use of safety equipment. That’s the real story in this and when safety is the story, it’s NASCAR’s duty to make sure it always has a happy ending. But this week, it looked like the sanctioning body didn’t much care how the story turned out—and everyone should be very, very concerned about that.
All this controversy from violations on safely equipment that should have been obvious at a glance.
If only NASCAR had bothered to look.
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