Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Brutal, Devastating Reminder

I have a saying I've repeated off-and-on over the last couple years: auto racing will never be 100 percent safe. The only way to ensure total safety in racing is to never get involved in it; never climb into a car, never pick up a wrench, never sit in the grandstands.

Safety in motorsports is a relative term; we can make motorsports safer, but we'll never make them safe. Ever. No energy-absorbing wall or crush-panel-lined car or stiffest head-and-neck-restraint device will ever fully protect drivers and those around them.

Sunday gave us all another painful reminder.

Dan Wheldon, two-time champion of the Indianapolis 500, was killed Sunday when he was involved in a scary, 15-car wreck early in the IZOD IndyCar Series season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. I won't provide a link to video or other images of the crash; if you want to see the wreck, you're on your own.

Wheldon, who won the Indy 500 again this past May after J.R. Hildebrand hit the Turn 4 wall on the last lap, was the 2005 IndyCar Series champion, and his 16 IndyCar wins are the fourth-most all-time. By all accounts, Wheldon was a pleasant man with a terrific family who everyone loved.

Now, the very sport he and those closest to him loved has taken him from us.

Wheldon knew the risks; he knew them every time he slipped into the cockpit. Every driver understands the risk involved, even if no one ever talks about it. Safety in motorsports is for other people -- the engineers and scientists, the sanctioning bodies responsible for putting on these races -- to figure out. Just tell the drivers the rules, and they'll follow along.

Part of auto racing's appeal is defying death. We watch these daredevils barrel into the turn at over 200 mph (or down the drag strip at almost 400 mph), not to watch them die, but to see them come out the other side as fit and healthy as they were before. There's a fine line between in-control and out-of-control in auto racing, and watching the drivers and teams straddle that line is part of the appeal.

The safety strides made in NASCAR -- and in other forms of motorsports -- over the past decade have been wonderful, and they're a large reason why we don't see more fatalities than we do. NASCAR hasn't had one on the national level since Dale Earnhardt in 2001; IndyCar's last fatality before Sunday was Paul Dana at Homestead in 2006. Aryton Senna was Formula One's last on-track fatality in 1994.

SAFER barriers, HANS devices, roof flaps, a new-generation NASCAR chassis with crush panels, a more centered driver's compartment and fire-extinguishing system attached to the fuel cell ... all of these innovations have helped. There will always be more work to do when it comes to making auto racing safer, but tremendous strides have been made.

Wheldon got airborne Sunday, as IndyCars so often do. His car erupted in flames, as did several others (Pippa Mann was being treated at a Las Vegas hospital after suffering a burn on her right hand). What I think sealed Wheldon's fate, though, was the fact that he hit the catchfence cockpit-first.

Carl Edwards also hit the catchfence cockpit-first in his Talladega wreck back in 2009, but unlike Wheldon, Edwards had a roof and a roll cage to protect him. Wheldon only had his helmet, exposing dangers specific to open-wheel racing.

IndyCar has been developing a new-generation race car to debut next season, a car that, among other things, is expected to be safer; ironically, Wheldon --who on Sunday morning signed a multi-year contract to replace Danica Patrick in the No. 7 car next season -- was the test driver the series used in developing the car.

Perhaps that is Wheldon's legacy, to leave the IZOD IndyCar Series safer than it was during his career. It's sad that Wheldon will never get to see his work come to fruition, but that's the way it goes, isn't it? The truly legendary and visionary among us never live long enough to see their efforts pay off.

NASCAR is fortunate that Jimmie Johnson emerged from his head-on wreck Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway without anything more than a limp and some soreness the next day. The safety advances are likely responsible for his impact not being more severe.

Still, Johnson is fortunate he walked away -- just like Elliott Sadler was fortunate after his Pocono wreck last season, just like David Ragan, David Reutimann and Denny Hamlin were after their respective accidents earlier this year at Watkins Glen.

Don't let the safety advancements we've seen over the years lull you into a false sense of security; the specter of death, or serious injury, is always there.

Wheldon's death serves as another stark reminder: as long as men and women slip on helmets and climb into race cars -- of any sort -- the possibility of tragedy is ever-present. The day death stops being a part of auto racing is the day there is no more auto racing.

No matter what form of motorsports you follow -- whether you have a clear preference or you follow anything with a motor -- a death on the track is always shocking and heartbreaking. It strikes me how shocking a driver's death is, even though we're always mindful of the potential and understand the risk; we know it can happen, but it's still a punch in the gut when it does.

The world of motorsports, not just IndyCar, is in mourning right now. Important questions need to be answered -- like whether IndyCars should be running on high-speed 1.5-mile ovals -- but this is not the time. Those debates can wait for another day.

Right now, let's remember Dan Wheldon for everything he did on the track, and how his passing affects us all off of it.

And let us never forget just how dangerous this sport we love truly is.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Patrick To Make It Official

ESPN's Marty Smith reported on Wednesday that IndyCar star Danica Patrick will officially announce her intentions to enter NASCAR full-time next week. Patrick will run the entire Nationwide Series schedule for JR Motorsports next season, while running a handful of Sprint Cup races for Stewart-Haas Racing -- before making the full jump to Cup in 2013.

Frankly, it's about time.

I didn't have an opinion one way or another about whether Patrick should come to NASCAR or stay in the IZOD IndyCar Series -- where she has one career win and is easily the most recognizable name in the series. Her departure will leave IndyCar with some issues (more than it already faces, given the finish to last weekend's race at Loudon, N.H.), but the most important thing here is the fact that she's finally made a decision.

Patrick is the middle of her second season of running a full IndyCar schedule for Andretti Autosport, while running a part-time Nationwide Series schedule in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 7 car. She finished a career-best fourth at Las Vegas in March, and Patrick led several laps in Daytona in July, threatening for the win before being caught in a last-lap wreck and finishing 10th.

I've said before she needs to choose, because jumping back and forth between two completely different race cars throughout a season did her no favors -- in either series. A stock car and an open-wheel car are completely different creatures, and hopping between them can make it hard for Patrick to get a rhythm in either series.

By making her choice, Patrick is removing one of her biggest hurdles to success. She's also making a choice that could improve her career.

Make no mistake: this is not a money move. Patrick is set for life already, and she was going to the bank regardless of where she strapped on a helmet -- you can thank such companies as Motorola and for that. She'll make a mint in NASCAR, especially if she succeeds, but that's not the driving force here.

Obviously, Patrick enjoys running stock cars. She enjoys rubbing fenders and mixing it up on the track -- something she can't do in an IndyCar. She's also not much of a road racer, and with the IndyCar Series migrating more and more toward road and street courses, it's no longer really the place for her.

The Nationwide Series only had three road courses on the schedule this season, and will likely have two or three next season -- leaving plenty of oval-track action for her to experience.

Results are also indisputable; Patrick's 2011 NASCAR experience has been much more successful so far than her 2010 foray. She's clearly more comfortable in a stock car than she was in the beginning, and it'll be interesting to see how she progresses as she gets an entire season under her belt (while also seeing just how much of a grind the NASCAR season is -- it's about twice as long as the IndyCar slate).

And if I'm being honest, the attention for NASCAR will be a win-win. Regardless of how one feels about Patrick as a race car driver, there's little doubt regarding her national appeal and the fact that she draws attention to whatever series in which she's competing. You don't think NASCAR is salivating at the thought of her fighting for a Nationwide Series championship next year?

In the end, this could be a good move for Patrick -- especially since she's willing to spend a full year in the Nationwide Series before making the plunge into the Cup Series. Previous open-wheel drivers to make the transition to NASCAR -- Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish Jr., Dario Franchitti, all with far better records than Patrick -- did not make that step, and it showed in their results.

Patrick could be a success in NASCAR. IndyCar without her? Well, that might be a different story.

Special Comment: Safety First -- Always

There's no question NASCAR has made significant strides in driver safety in the past decade. Following a slew of fatalities in 2000 and 2001 -- Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, Tony Roper and Dale Earnhardt -- NASCAR finally took seriously the sort of safety measures that other forms of racing had long ago adopted.

Full-face helmets became mandatory, as did head-and-neck restraint devices (commonly known as the HANS device). Over the course of several years, most tracks on the NASCAR circuit implemented SAFER barriers, energy-absorbing walls meant to divert force of an impact away from the driver.

Even the new-generation car in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series was designed primarily with safety in mind.

First, the good news: no driver has lost his or her life in a NASCAR national touring series race since Earnhardt in February 2001. But while there's no bad news, the reality remains: there is still work to be done.

Just ask David Ragan, David Reutimann and Denny Hamlin.

Or Brad Keselowski, for that matter.

Ignoring Keselowski for a moment (since the track where he was injured is not a NASCAR-sanctioned facility), consider the plights of Hamlin, Ragan and Reutimann this past Monday at Watkins Glen International.

Hamlin suffered a brake failure heading into the first turn in Monday's race, a hard right-hander following a lengthy straightaway. Barreling through the paved run-off area, Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota slammed head-on into the guardrail, softened only by stacks of tires. Behind the guardrail stood a concrete post and a mound of dirt similar to what we used to see along the Long Pond straightaway at Pocono.

Video of the brutal hit:

Hamlin credited the safety features within the car, as well as a new seven-point seat belt he'd been wearing, for the fact that he walked away from the wreck. The tire barrier also helped, and the guardrail did give under the force of the collision, but wouldn't Hamlin have been better served to crash head-first into a SAFER barrier?

On the last lap, Ragan and Reutimann were involved in a violent crash along the esses. Ragan was tapped by Boris Said and spun head-on into a guardrail jutting out at an awkward angle -- with no tire barrier. Ragan shot back across the track, collecting Reutimann and sending him head-on into another guardrail at a bad angle.

The force of that impact sent Reutimann upside down, shot him back across the track and into another guardrail. Both Ragan and Reutimann emerged from their vehicles, sore but uninjured, but Reutimann's firesuit suffered a tear in the left leg.

Video of that incident:

Watkins Glen should investigate the possibility of adding SAFER barriers at all of the above positions. Not only that, the track should look into the awkward angle its walls take in places where openings are available for safety vehicles to get onto the track. There has to be a way for safety vehicles to get onto the track, while not leaving drivers vulnerable to the kinds of impacts Ragan and Reutimann suffered.

Las Vegas and Richmond have each had that issue, and both tracks have addressed it. Other tracks have added SAFER barriers over the years where there had previously been none. Safety is a constantly-moving target, and NASCAR (as well as other racing series) must be ever-vigilant.

It's easy to look at the above incidents and call them freak accidents, things that would likely never happen again. That might be true, but auto racing is so unpredictable, by its very nature, that one can never assume something will never happen. NASCAR and the tracks it races on must be proactive, not reactive, when it comes to ensuring the safety of its competitors and fans.

Look, auto racing will never be 100 percent safe; the only way to ensure 100 percent safety is to never climb into a race car in the first place. But there is always work to be done to make the sport safer than it was last year, last month, last week.

Monday's race highlighted some safety vulnerabilities at Watkins Glen, and if the track hopes to continue hosting NASCAR's top two national series, it must address those concerns before next year's races. If the concerns are not properly addressed, then NASCAR should stop going to that track.

Ragan, Reutimann and Hamlin are still with us and will race this weekend at Michigan thanks to the safety advancements made over the past decade. That's worthy of praise, but as Monday's race showed us, we're not where we need to be.

Not even close.