NASCAR drivers are now safer than ever
Dale Earnhardt Sr. should be the last Sprint Cup driver to die in a race car.
Earnhardt's legacy has nothing to do with the aggressive driving style, his Cheshire Cat smile or the bigger-than-life personality we often remember him for. It lies in the safety innovations that have saved, and will continue to save, a generation of drivers that developed from his accident.
Life-changing injuries to Bobby Allison, Steve Park and Ernie Irvan didn't alter things all that much in the sport. Then, the deaths of Kenny Irwin, Tony Roper and Adam Petty in the year that preceded Earnhardt's Daytona crash sparked an outcry by a growing contingent of competitors and fans who were sickened and saddened by the macabre turn that their sport had taken.
Yet, despite their pleas for change, it took the impact of Earnhardt's demise to make a difference. His death left an unimaginable void as it ripped the very heart and soul out of the sport, leaving behind millions of fans wondering how it could have happened.
A thorough, scientific evaluation of the circumstances surrounding Earnhardt's death ushered in myriad changes to the sport, nearly all of them focused on a singular goal — to make the sport safer.
His death signaled the end of an era, ushering in a new one, one that demanded an unprecedented emphasis on safety without compromising the competition on the racetrack. It called to task the men and women who run the sport of stock car racing, demanding that they set forth in a new direction with the sport that in the years, months and days before Earnhardt's death, had taken the lives of several of its up-and-coming drivers, including the grandson of the King of the sport.
NASCAR officials have said that at the time of Earnhardt's death, there were already plans in the works to make the sport safer. They undoubtedly had recognized that if NASCAR were to be embraced by a wider audience and be more attractive to major corporate partners with their millions of dollars in sponsorship support, it could not continue to generate headlines that announced the death of another of its drivers.
Ironically, Earnhardt's death shone the very brightest of spotlights on a sport that was working hard to gain increased recognition on a national sports stage dominated by other professional sports.
A redesigned race car, "soft walls," and the HANS device, which likely would have saved Earnhardt's life, along with dozens of other innovations were very publicly introduced to stock car racing in the years following his death.
In March 2002, soon after the HANS device became mandatory equipment for all NASCAR drivers, Nationwide Series driver Mark Green took one of the hardest hits of his career at Bristol Motor Speedway when he was T-boned by Larry Foyt. He had to be extricated from his car and was later diagnosed with a mild concussion and a bruised foot. According to SceneDaily.com, he credited the HANS device with saving him.
"I had a white helmet on," he said, "and when you slow the replay down, you can really see that white helmet behind that black window net. And even though I got hit in the side, you can still see my head move forward. So I know the HANS saved me. All that stuff, the head nets, window nets, the HANS device combined just saved my life. Since Dale's death, all the stuff that's been done, there's no question that helped me."
Four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon walked away from a nearly head-on impact into the Turn 1 wall at Pocono International Raceway in August 2006, proving the effectiveness of the SAFER barrier in softening his nearly 200-mph impact.
"That was one of the hardest hits I have ever taken," Gordon said shortly afterward. "Between the soft wall and the seat and the (HANS) safety device, I never got knocked out. And I was surprised that I feel pretty good."
Last year, Elliott Sadler was involved in an even more devastating high-speed crash at Pocono, in an area of the track that did not have the SAFER walls. The impact literally disintegrated his race car, yet he was able to walk away.
"These new cars are built to be safer, and if I can get out of that and walk through that, I think it did its job," Sadler said.
By far the worst incident involving a Sprint Cup driver since the introduction of the new car and other safety mechanisms was by Michael McDowell during qualifying for the April 2008 race at Texas Motor Speedway.
As the then-rookie was driving into Turn 1 at full speed, his race car dramatically turned right, sending it nearly head-on into the SAFER barrier. The impact rolled the car onto its roof, then it spun upside down for several hundred yards before it began a series of eight barrel rolls, coming to rest right-side up on the backstretch. After a brief moment, McDowell was able to exit the car on his own, much to the delight of those in attendance.
"That was the hardest hit I've ever seen anybody take," two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart said shortly after the McDowell wreck. "That makes you look at what NASCAR's done and say that they're doing a good job with the (new car) and the SAFER barriers."
His fellow drivers who had witnessed firsthand the safety built into the new car echoed his comments.
Admittedly, there were issues with the competitiveness of the new car when it was first introduced, and, surely, Earnhardt would have been one of its most vocal critics. However, the new vehicle has evolved into just the kind of race car deserved of the series in which it is being raced, where racing should be difficult yet risky. In retrospect, Earnhardt's documented remarks in regards to "male bravado" and his oft-repeated references to the dangers of racing and "if a driver wasn't willing to take a risk, then he should find a different profession," seem out of place and out of step with today's reality.
Now, about 10 years later, NASCAR has seen that the changes to the sport prompted by Earnhardt's death have not only made the sport of stock car racing safer but more competitive. Despite receiving harsh criticism when first introduced in 2007, the “Car of Tomorrow” has led to closer racing than ever before. It has, unquestionably, saved the lives of several drivers, including McDowell and Sadler, both of whom would surely not be alive today had it not been for the technology introduced to the sport since Earnhardt's death.
And that same wave of new racing technology is finding its way into the cars of stock car racing's developmental series, giving the promise of an even safer future for the next generation of drivers.
So in the coming days and weeks, as we race fans reminisce about the remarkable career of the great Dale Earnhardt and take joy in the telling and retelling of stories about his life, both on and off the racetrack, we'll drift back to exactly where we were on that day in February — the day when everything changed.
Who better than 2008 Daytona 500 winner Kevin Harvick, the man who replaced Earnhardt at Richard Childress Racing, to have the definitive word on Earnhardt's legacy.
"I think when you look at the safety of the tracks and the safety of the cars and the attention that NASCAR has paid to those things that have changed the racing world . . . it's changed the world of racing from top to bottom," Harvick said. "And those are the things that you can draw so many positives now out of something that was so devastating for the whole sport.
"A lot of things changed on that day."