The tragic death of Dan Wheldon during the IndyCar Series race at Las Vegas brought to the forefront the adage that motor racing is a dangerous sport.
However, it’s something that hasn’t really been spoken of in quite a few years.
After the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt Senior on NASCAR’s biggest stage, the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR became a leader in motorsports safety. With the developments put forth and championed by the sanctioning body, NASCAR has not had to face a tragedy such as the death of Earnhardt since then.
There have been deaths in American motorsports since 2001. In fact scores of them in National touring series. From the NHRA to IndyCar to USAC to Grand Am approximately 20 drivers have lost their life in competition. To be air, while no driver has died in the top three touring series, in NASCAR’s lower tier series there have been tragedies. Four drivers, two in the Mexico Corona Series and two in the Whelen Modified Tour have died.
In NASCAR’s top three touring series however, despite some spectacular crashes no driver has lost their life in competition. That’s thanks in large part to the safety innovations in NASCAR.
But has the lack of a fatality in NASCAR led to an air of complacency in the sport? Do NASCAR drivers still know and understand the risk involved?
“We all know that can happen every week,” two time NASCAR champion and former open wheel racer Tony Stewart said. “It’s been a part of racing forever. I don’t know that it’s necessarily why we do what we do; but, we know those risks going into it. It is part of the sport. It always has been and it always will be.”
It’s seemingly a playing field that has become so safe that the risk of a fatal outcome to a crash in front of millions of fans is almost non-existent.
Part of the success NASCAR has had in terms of safety is the open door policy it has with its competitors.
“If I thought that someone was neglecting some item that they could address and they weren’t out of negligence or cost savings or something like that then what I would do is go talk to (NASCAR president) Mike Helton or go talk to NASCAR,” said Carl Edwards who walked away from a horrible crash at Talladega a few years ago. “Very few times have I gone to them and said I was concerned about this or that. They seem to be ahead of the curve on almost everything.”
Five time and regaining NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson was himself the victim of a hard crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a head on collision that destroyed his car only hours before Dan Wheldon lost his life.
“I’m thankful we’ve had the developments we have had in motorsports making our cars safe,” Johnson said. “I built confidence in my crash from Saturday night, I had a huge impact and I didn’t even lose consciousness so I feel like I’m in a very safe environment. But there are risks in our sport and we do assume and take those risks. We try to prepare our family and friends with the risks that we take and you just race with a heavy heart and think of Dan and the drivers before Dan that have been killed.”
Perhaps it’s not that NASCAR is too safe, it’s that the sport is so safe that their own safety is far from a drivers mind.
“Sometimes you don’t realize how unsafe it is until you see how safe it can be,” four time champion Jeff Gordon who has been racing in NASCAR for over 20 years said. “I look back on the HANS device. I remember when the HANS device was first created and I saw somebody wearing it and I was’ that thing is stupid and it’s uncomfortable and that will never work’. Now I can’t imagine getting into a race car without it. The same way with the safer barriers, after you hit a wall with the safer barrier and hit one without it, it’s a big difference. (There) was a time when we were right on the edge with tire failures, we had no safer barriers, no HANS devices, no carbon-fiber seats, we had flimsy aluminum head supports and I hit that wall really, really hard and I feel like I’m very lucky.”
The Dan Wheldon tragedy reminded all that motor racing is still a very dangerous sport and unfortunately that is part of its appeal.
“That’s why people come to watch races because there is an element of danger involved,” Stewart said. “You’re never going to get it all out but like we said it’s safer than it’s ever been. It’s a freak thing that happened and it can happen every race. It can happen every race that we run but it’s safer than it’s ever been.”
While it is safer than it’s ever been, as the loss of Dan Wheldon proved, there is risk still involved. Of all forms of motorsports, perhaps NASCAR has proven that they are the safest. But that doesn’t mean that there is no chance for tragedy to happen. But is it too safe? Not by a long shot. Sadly despite everything NASCAR has done and will continue to do, not every situation can be prevented or planned for. There is a weak link somewhere and while that fact is part of the allure of NASCAR, it’s this unseen weak link that could pose the greatest danger to drivers. For now the green flag will still wave and NASCAR will still race.
“Right now we’re at a great place,” Gordon said. “Until we find the weak link from what we have I feel very fortunate to be in these race cars in this series.”
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