NASCAR drivers have historically presented a high mortality risk, but recent data suggests that NASCAR mortality has improved over the last decade. With numerous safety advances over the past 10 years, there have been zero deaths in NASCAR’s three National Series (Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck). Since Dale Earnhardt’s death at Daytona in February 2001, NASCAR has taken a proactive and aggressive approach to safety, opening a new research and development center near Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2002.1 Since 2001, there have been many improvements in helmets, seatbelts, on-board fire extinguishers, cars, use of crash data, the introduction of “soft-wall” technology and, most importantly, head and neck restraints. The information herein provides some overview of the major safety changes since 2001 and some data analysis. This article examines the relationship between major safety changes implemented by NASCAR within the last 10 years and the resulting decrease in deaths in NASCAR’s three National Racing Series since 2001.
Auto racing is a broad genre that includes numerous racing categories, with each category representing a unique risk. NASCAR is the largest sanctioning body of stock car racing in the United States. The three largest racing series sanctioned by NASCAR are the Sprint Cup, Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series. The Sprint Cup Series is the sport’s highest level of competition, consisting of 36 races over a 10-month period. The Nationwide Series consists of 34 races, while the Camping World Truck Series consists of 25 races. While there are multiple factors to consider when comparing different racing types, it should be noted that NASCAR is much more stringent regarding safety standards, and an industry leader when it comes to research and development of safety innovations.
Arguably the most important safety improvement is the requirement of the HANS device. The HANS (head and neck support) device is a semi-hard collar made of carbon fiber and Kevlar, which is fastened to the upper body by a harness worn by the driver. Two flexible tethers on the collar are attached to the helmet to prevent the head from snapping forward or to the side during a wreck.5
When the green flag dropped to start the race in Daytona in 2001, only seven of the 43 drivers were wearing HANS restraints.2
In the nine months prior to Earnhardt’s death, three NASCAR drivers – Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr. and Tony Roper – had died of the same injury (as Earnhardt) from the same cause: basilar skull fracture, resulting from violent movements of their unrestrained heads during crashes.
Basilar skull fracture is not just a fracture at the base of the skull. It involves the cracking of a small circular bone about the size of a quarter, the foramen magnum, at the bottom rear of the skull, where the bone and cartilage are weakest. The hole in the doughnut-shaped foramen magnum is a critical passageway. Through it run the two interior carotid arteries, which branch off from the exterior carotids in the neck. Part of the brainstem also passes through that hole. Cracking of the little bone can cut the interior carotid arteries, and the sufferer can bleed to death in a matter of seconds. There also can be damage to the areas of the brainstem that control breathing and heart rate.2
By the 2002 season, all drivers were required to wear head and neck devices.3
Another safety improvement was the upgrade in safety belts. After Earnhardt was killed while wearing a five-point harness, many drivers switched to a six-point harness, in which additional belts are wrapped around the legs. All the belts are connected to a single latch that can be released quickly to allow for a quick exit from the cockpit.1
In addition to the HANS device and seatbelt improvements, NASCAR made a full-face helmet mandatory after Earnhardt’s death.1 The helmet is designed to dissipate impact energy over the entire helmet and prevent debris from puncturing it.5
Another important safety improvement was the implementation of soft-wall technology. Since the 1990s, Dr. Dean Sicking, Director at Midwest Roadside Safety Facility, Lincoln, Nebraska, had been developing energy-absorbing barriers, called SAFER barriers, for the Indy Racing League.3 He began work on his own design, installing crushable foam insulation behind a series of square steel tubes.1 The first barriers went up at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IRL) in 2002, and NASCAR tracks began to follow suit 2 years later.3
In 2003, NASCAR required an additional fire-extinguishing cylinder solely dedicated to the fuel cell area in all three major touring series, mounted in the cockpit and automatically activated by heat.1
In addition to requiring fire extinguishers, NASCAR mandated black boxes in the early 2000s.1 This small device, about the size of a paperback book, is carried on board the cars. It records the sudden increases in ‘G-forces’ from every direction in every crash. The crash data is part of NASCAR’s investigation of every accident on the tracks. All that information is entered into a database so NASCAR can research and compare similar accidents, and make evaluations as to why one caused an injury while another did not.2
The final major safety improvement was to the NASCAR vehicle itself. Introduced for 16 races in 2007, the NASCAR “Car of Tomorrow” was implemented for the entire 2008 schedule for the Sprint Cup Series. The Car of Tomorrow is wider and taller than the previous race car (formerly NEXTEL Cup). The driver’s roll cage has been moved back and the driver’s seat has moved in toward the center of the car. This provides a larger “crumple zone” around the driver and will help protect the driver in a side impact.6 In addition to the center-located seat and larger driver’s compartment, energy-absorbing materials can be found throughout the gut of the vehicle.7 Read More +