Look around at any race track and you’ll see it: a number of innovations in the area of racing safety. From SAFER barriers ringing the track to the design of the racecars themselves, the sport has seen huge strides in safety in the last 15 years. The purpose? Simple, yet important: keep drivers from getting hurt during a race.
Is it working? NASCAR hasn’t seen an on-track death in a national touring division in more than a decade. Drivers are walking away from crashes that once might well have left them seriously injured or worse. Pit crew injuries are less common.
What’s changed since the death of Dale Earnhardt 14 years ago? SAFER barriers were developed and implemented at nearly every track NASCAR’s top divisions. Head restraints are now mandated for drivers to keep their heads from snapping forward on impact. Cars have safer driver areas and equipment. Seats encase the driver with shock absorbent materials. NASCAR enhanced testing for concussions that once might have gone unnoticed for weeks. Rules have been implemented for the safety of pit crew members, who once went over the wall without helmets every week.
And no driver has been lost since that fateful day in Daytona, far enough in the rearview mirror that many of today’s fans weren’t watching it all unfold, feeling sick with fear that something was dreadfully wrong.
The same feeling many felt briefly last weekend after Kyle Busch slammed into an unprotected concrete barrier last Saturday afternoon. Busch climbed from his car but it was obvious that something was very wrong – and it was. Busch suffered a compound fracture (one of the worst types of fractures because the bone pierces the skin, creating an avenue for infection) of his right leg and a fracture of his left foot. He underwent a pair of surgeries this week to repair the damage and faces a long and difficult recovery.
There’s all that safety equipment in the racecars to thank that the outcome for Busch wasn’t much, much worse. All those things that worked to save his life.
But is it really working?
Here’s the thing: while it’s commendable that many tracks have stepped up and promised to add SAFER barriers to exposed walls, while it’s great that NASCAR mandates HANS devices and pit crew helmets, and while it may be true that not so long ago, Busch might not have walked away, the real truth is that we’ve all been complacent these last 14 years.
We’ve been lulled into relying on the SAFER barriers and HANS devices and other bits and pieces and gadgets to keep drivers and crews safe. But when was the last time we heard of something new? When was the last groundbreaking development in safety?
The most recent major safety changes in the cars was part of the Car of Tomorrow package, a package that’s now eight years old. SAFER barriers are effective where they’re installed, but does that mean there should not be extensive, ongoing research into other innovations to keep drivers and spectators safe?
To their credit, the companies that make the safety equipment for drivers, things like helmets and head restraints, firesuits and seatbelts and carbon fiber seats, do seem to be constantly thinking ahead, developing better products. Those products are constantly evolving and getting better, stronger, safer. Ironically, those products are all things teams and drivers choose and purchase themselves.
NASCAR continues to be a sanctioning body that’s reactive, rather than proactive, when it comes to safety. Sometimes, its mission to cut costs (an admirable thing, for the most part) conflicts with its responsibility to keep participants safe. SAFER barriers are expensive. They’re mandated at every track sanctioned for a national touring series, with the exception of Eldora, but only in the turns and areas where crashes are most likely. They’re not required on every surface. Sure, some tracks are now installing them more widely, especially after Busch’s accident. But it should not have taken a devastating crash and injury of a popular driver for them to take action.
And NASCAR should be willing to help foot the bill. Whether that’s through reducing the sanctioning fees for a couple of years for tracks who install more safety features in order to offset the cost or through grants to tracks or some other incentive program, NASCAR should be at the forefront of encouraging tracks to make upgrades to keep racers and fans alive and unscathed. NASCAR should be paving the way for tracks to have all the safety features it can think of instead of mandating the bare minimum.
And nobody should be satisfied with the current safety features in racing. There should be constant innovation, as well as funding for it to happen. Building a better mousetrap takes constant work, and when it’s built, it’s time to take it to another level. It should never stop. There should never be complacency. We got lucky this time; we’re talking about how many races Kyle Busch might miss and whether he’ll ever be the same, but we could be talking about how his child would cope, growing up without him.
Just because it hasn’t happened in 14 years doesn’t mean it can’t happen. That should be motivation enough for NASCAR to be constantly striving to make safety in the sport even better than it already is. Complacency is dangerous.
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