Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

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

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

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.

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