This column comes after hearing the terrible news that Jeremy Lusk passed away in Costa Rica after failing to complete a double-grab backflip on a motorcycle. Lusk landed short and went over the handlebars headfirst. The end result was brain and possible spinal damage after his body flipped over his head. He succumbed to his injuries when doctors attempted to bring him out of a drug-induced coma. Our thoughts and prayers are with Jeremy’s wife and parents in this time of such a loss.
The news brought back memories of that day eight years ago when the NASCAR landscape changed forever. Since that day drivers have been required to wear head and neck restraint devices. Every track on the circuit has installed SAFER barriers that have allowed the G-forces experienced by drivers to be dramatically reduced at the moment of impact. The new car design has an expanded greenhouse which allows the drivers to be further from the side of the car and reduce the impact with the roll cage in the event of a driver-side impact. There is also foam in the doors and there is still discussion about roof hatches. All of these innovations have taken place since the death of Dale Earnhardt.
While safety is no longer in the headlines since people saw Michael McDowell flip eight times at Texas Motor Speedway last year and walk away like he was in a fender-bender in the Wal-Mart parking lot, it is still on the minds of teams, drivers and the NASCAR brass. Until the day drivers can be assured of being safe from injury (which can never possibly happen) there will always be innovation taking place to improve driver safety.
Watching the Budweiser Shootout Saturday night and seeing the carnage of the wrecks was another reminder of how far we’ve come in the world of safety. It is almost to a point where the mandatory trip to the infield care center is just a formality after a car cannot be driven back to the pits. While we should never take the amazing safety for granted, it is without a doubt to NASCAR’s credit that the level of safety in the sport is at an all-time high. The same can be said for the grassroots levels of NASCAR racing as well. Drivers in the Whelen All-American Series all wear head and neck restraints now when they compete. They wear fire-proof gloves, their seat belts are checked and must be changed when they reach their stated lifespan. Things that weren’t in the Cup cars 10-15 years ago are now in every car that competes in any NASCAR sanctioned event, no matter what level.
There is no doubt that change will be coming in 2009. Change will not only happen in America, but also in the world of extreme sports. While there is danger involved and that is part of the thrill, it changes when someone dies during an event. Hopefully the people who organize those sports will take a long hard look and figure out how to make them safer. It is great to say that, for once, NASCAR is actually ahead of the curve.