Auto racing is full of risk, but the crash and death of Dale
Earnhardt, NASCAR's bright shining star, points to how great
that risk can be
even more so when driving in NASCAR.
2001 is the first year of major television network coverage
for the hugely popular racing league, and thus far money and
politics have been the guiding forces, not the need for major
redesign of the safety equipment and restrictions on the power
generated by the massive power plants that propel the racers
around many tracks at speeds well over 200 miles per hour.
No question, the skill and fortitude of the drivers are important.
Mere inches separate the cars while racing around an oval
track for hours. Victory or defeat is often determined by
heady technical managers determining fuel mileage, pit strategy
and race tactics. But safety regulations are important too,
and up until now they have been left to a few simple, nearly
ineffective governing NASCAR rules or to the crews and drivers
Some pundits have suggested the Earnhardt death could have
been prevented had he used a newly designed safety mechanism
called the HANS Device, a sort of head and neck restraint
system, but he and most other drivers consider the device
too uncomfortable and refuse to wear it.
And NASCAR doesn't require it.
In the rest of the world, Formula One is the most popular
form of auto racing and has been for many years. It is widely
considered the crème de la crème of the sport,
and the money involved overshadows NASCAR investment by ridiculous
numbers. The speeds are similar, but the cars are more dangerous:
Formula One cars have open cockpits while NASCAR's cockpit
is enclosed; they have a small roll bar while NASCAR has large
ones; they have huge racing tires exposed to danger while
NASCAR's resides under a protective fender. Yet Formula One
injuries and deaths pale in comparison to NASCAR's in the
recent years. In fact, there have been four NASCAR racing
deaths in the last ten months, a very high and disturbing
We searched for the "why" and exposed this disturbing
Formula One forces safety devices similar to the HANS Device
and other serious safety requirements on their vehicles and
drivers. The uncomfortable safety seats have been standard
requirement for years, and the design and implementation of
crash-worthy chassis are required by the governing body of
Formula One. In addition, there is no American marketing force
behind the European League near that of the NASCAR series,
and American television networks aren't interested and, therefore,
aren't pressing for good ratings.
Is NASCAR becoming the WWF of auto racing? Is it damn the
safety, let's make money?
Not quite, but dangerously close.
A massively popular American sport willing to re-tool itself
while so close to huge profits from the networks is nearly
unthinkable. When the XFL was created from NFL ideals, safety
rules were relaxed in lieu of more excitement and attracting
a large network audience. Why? We hardly need say it.
Does NASCAR have to lose more of its bright shining stars
to re-think safety? Fearfully, probably so.
Even more fearfully
perhaps even that loss will make