Safety has been a big topic in sports, and that talk hasn’t even been about NASCAR, or any other form of auto racing for that matter. For the most part, the safety talk has been about football, and that talk has primarily been about the lack thereof.
Even though sports safety talk has primarily centered around football and head injuries resulting from hard impact in that sport, several NASCAR drivers have been asked lately about safety in their own sport.
NASCAR has come a long way, safety-wise, since several deaths right around the turn of the centruy some 14 years ago. Each of NASCAR’s three national series lost a driver during the 2000 race season. Busch (now-Nationwide) Series driver Adam Petty and Winston (now-Sprint) Cup driver Kenny Irwan each died in practice crashes at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on separate race weekends and Craftsman (now-Camping World) Truck Series driver Tony Roper passed as a result of injuries sustained in a race crash at Texas Motor Speedway. Those deaths proceeded the biggest headline-catching death of them all, the 2001 deal of Dale Earnhardt in the final turn on the last lap of the Daytona 500 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway at thge start of the following season.
There had been deaths in NASCAR before and as time went on, the sport got safer and safter, but for some reason, right around 2000, deaths as a result of racing incidents became somewhat frequent, seemingly all of a sudden. Sure there were a handful of deaths at NASCAR’s top levels in the 90s, but not all of them were a result of racing incidents. For example, there were three notable deaths right around the mid-1990s. I’m referring to the passing of Neil Bonnett, Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki. Of those three deaths, though, only one was a result of a racing-related incident — Bonnett’s. Kulwicki died from injuries sustained in a plane crash. For Allison, it was a helicopter crash.
All that aside, it could be said that NASCAR has made its biggest strides in the years since the rash of deaths from 2000-2001, and a lot of that probably has to do with the negative spotlight cast on the sport shortly following Earnhardt’s death. After all, and not slighting the other aformentioned deceased drivers in any way, Earnhardt was a, if not the, face of the sport. To that time, not a bigger star of the sport had passed as a result of injuries sustained in competition.
In the time since, SAFER barriers have become the norm, rather than the exception. Then there’s the HANS device, with its introduction and mandate seeming to come as a direct result of Earnhardt’s death from head and neck injuries. Then there was that hated Car of Tomorrow. You know, that dirty COT word or acronym. Nobody seems to miss that thing, since the sport’s moved on the the Gen-6 car, but to the COT’s credit, it did introduce some onboard safety features that were carried over to the Gen-6. One safety feature that’s, perhaps, overlooked these days that came way before the COT is the kill switch now mandated on steering wheels. In case you forgot, those came into play following the deaths of Petty and Irwin, whose deaths came as a result of stuck throttles.
What I’m wondering and asking for your opinion on, and I realize it took me a long and wordy time to get to it, is how does NASCAR compare, safety wise, to other other professional sports, namely football.
On the surface, at least to those outside the sport, that answer would probably be one of astoundment to suggest that NASCAR is safer than those “stick-and-ball” sports. But I guess that’s a matter of perspective. After all, it would be hard to call a sport in which cars are running at, near or in slight excess off 200 mph in close quarters for upwards of 500 miles “safe.” But then again, NASCAR drivers are protected, not only by helmets, but also firesuites, roll cages and the aforementioned safety features in the cars and at the tracks. Meanwhile, those football players only have helmets and padding.
At least a few NASCAR drivers actually feel that their sport is safer than football. Joey Logano is among those. During a press conference last week when visiting the NFL’s Detroit Lions while promoting the upcoming race at Michigan International Raceway in Brooklyn, Mich., Logano was asked about safety issues. Here’s a snippet of what he had to say:
“I am glad I am in a race car is what I say. These guys get hit a lot harder than a race car does. We take some big hits in cars but the safety in our sport has improved a lot, not just with the COT car, but the seats, helmets, belts, all of that stuff keeps improving. Not that it doesn’t in football, I think it does there too, but we take a hit maybe once every 15 races or so on average and these guys are taking hits on every play. I feel like my sport is a lot safer. We may look crazy going 200 miles per hour but I would much rather hit the wall at 200 than have a 300 pound linebacker coming at me.”
Later in the week, during a press conference at Pocono Raceay in Long Pond, Pa., six-time and defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson concurred. Here’s what Johnson had to say:
“I agree with that (Logano’s comments). I think that’s the case. I feel like what took place around 2000 and on and the changes that we’ve made, there are a lot of stats to show that. And then I also think from just casual injuries, I don’t even know what to really call them, but knee injuries and broken bones and things like that, we’re protected by a steel race car and it certainly helps that. Concussions are certainly an aspect of our sport that exists and something we’re all very sensitive to, but the amount of time we hit our heads versus how they hit heads every snap is different and plays into that as well.”
Johnson also discussed the evolution of the seat and how safer it’s become — something I haven’t touched on.
“I’d say the seat,” Johnson said when asked what piece of equipment seems to have made the biggest difference over the past decade in regards to safety. “And the seat also would include that head surround that saves us from the basal skull fracture which is what took five guys from us in that 2000 timeframe. But the seat contains the driver. It keeps your legs in line and keeps the load going through your shoulders and not through your ribs. Broken ribs were a very popular injury years back. And it didn’t take much of an impact to pop a rib or two. So, I think the seat is a big portion of it. But there’s really three, especially with the ultimate concern that we have. Seat, SAFER barrier, and Hans device. That for the big one; but for the casual injuries, I think the seat has a lot to do with that and probably the SAFER barrier.”
Has NASCAR really become safer than football? Of course, given all the safety issues brought up in regards to football lately, I guess that’s not saying much, but has NASCAR really, truly, become that safe? I hope it has.
Take a poll about the subject here.