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[The following is part three of a series. I realize my main audience will not be racing fans. I will do my best to make this series accessible.]

Is racing safe? Yes, maybe, sort of, pretty much, or not at all? The answer depends on many factors. Do we consider all forms and levels of racing, or just the top professional levels? Do we consider the entire history of racing since the invention of the automobile, or the present time? Do we consider all kinds of tracks (circuits, streets, ovals, dirt, offroad)? Do we consider all  kinds of cars (stock car, formula/open wheel, touring, rally, dirt, bikes, drag, etc.)?

Racing will never be perfectly safe. “Safe” is a goal. Safety is the process towards the ideal.

The following statistics demonstrate the improvement in safety in three major racing series over the last twenty years.

Deaths from 1993-2002: 13 (Nascar, 7; IndyCar 4; Formula 1, 2)
Deaths in the last 10 years: 3 (all in IndyCar).

Questions are asked every time a fatal accident occurs. “Why did this happen?” “Could this be prevented in the future?” “What safety changes should be made?” Interest in safety is part of what it means for me to be a racing fan. I want the sport to be safer. I read articles about it. I have my own opinion about safety improvements I think should be made, just as I have opinions about other aspects of the sport.

Earnhardt had hit the wall nearly head on at one of NASCAR’s fastest tracks. When he hit the wall, his head snapped forward, causing a basilar skull fracture and killing him instantly.

Although three drivers died in NASCAR the previous year, it took the death of its biggest star to cause an incredible safety revolution that still continues: The drivers now wear a HANS device (Head And Neck Support) that prevents the head from moving forward in a crash, the seats are built safer, the cars are built better and safer, and the racetracks (thanks to Indianapolis) have SAFER barriers (“soft” walls) around the walls that absorb impacts better. Earnhardt would have walked away if the same crash were to happen today.

Wheldon’s crash is slightly more complicated. IndyCar (IRL/CART/Champ Car) is also much safer than it used to be. Certain advancements, such as the HANS, were mandated before NASCAR required them. Yet despite the incredible gains in the last twenty years, Indy cars continue to have one major safety flaw: the uncovered cockpit.

Wheldon’s car flew head first into the catch fencing above the SAFER barrier. His exposed helmet hit one of the immovable poles that supported the fencing. Wheldon died shortly after the impact from blunt force trauma to the head.

The car did its job. Wheldon had no injuries from the neck down. The problem was two-fold. Firstly, a car could become airborne by touching the wheels of another car. Since the wheels of the cars were exposed, one car could “climb” over the wheels of another car when they touched, launching one into the air. This was what caused Wheldon’s car to launch into the air. Secondly, the aerodynamic package of the cars on large oval tracks caused the cars to drive together in one close pack, dramatically increasing the chance for an accident like the one described. Both issues have been resolved. The bodywork of the car has been extended so that the cars cannot make wheel-to-wheel contact anymore, and the aerodynamic package has been changed so that the cars no longer drive in close packs. That’s not to say that the possibility of an airborne crash like this one no longer exists, but the recipe for disaster has been removed. The IndyCar race at Texas a few weeks ago proved these changes, primarily the second, to be a rousing success.

No, racing is not perfectly safe, but it is very safe. The chances of a serious accident continue to decrease. Although I fear another freak accident may someday injure or kill another driver, I am pleased with the progress each racing series has made. I’ll go on record to say that I would rather crash in one of those race cars at 200 mph any day than crash at 50 mph in my own car.

[part 1: The greatest race that isn’t]
[part 2: It doesn’t get any easier the second time]
[part 4: It’s worth it]

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[The following is part one of a series about my response to death in racing, my favorite sport. I realize my main audience will not be racing fans. I will do my best to make this series accessible. Note: I originally intended to publish this particular post one year ago today, but decided not to. One year later, it fits as part one of a series. I’ve edited it slightly, but the date and timing remains the same. It’s original title: The greatest race that isn’t.]

February 18, 2001. Ten years ago today. Dale Earnhardt died in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500.

Americans remember where they were and what they were doing on September 11, 2001. Our parents remember the same about Kennedy’s assassination. Our grandparents remember the same about the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

NASCAR fans remember February 18, 2001. http://sports.espn.go.com/rpm/nascar/cup/news/story?id=6131721

I was 13 at the time. NASCAR had been my favorite sport since 1995, and Earnhardt had been my favorite driver.

At two tracks, Daytona and Talladega, cars are restricted to run under 200 mph for safety reasons.  The cars do not have enough power to pull away from each other, so by drafting (riding in the air stream behind another car) many cars can stay in a big pack.

NASCAR changed the aerodynamic package of the cars before this particular race. There was expected to be a lot of passing and the cars could easily stay together. This race was expected to be perhaps the greatest Daytona 500 ever due to the aero rules package. For the first 199 laps, I think it was among the greatest ever.

I was watching from my home in Ohio. My family was not really interested in NASCAR so they were off doing their own thing. I loved the race. There was a lot of passing, and my favorite drivers were doing well. Dale Earnhardt was running up near the front the entire race, and his own race team, Dale Earnhardt Inc., had drivers Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. near the front, too.

In the final twenty laps, Michael Waltrip took the lead, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in second, Dale Earnhardt was in third. No one knew it at the time, but Earnhardt had planned for those three drivers to get up front and stay single file. Because it was so easy to pass, if those drivers did not work together (cars run faster running when they stay in line than when side by side), they would have a hard time winning. Earnhardt blocked and blocked all the drivers behind them to keep them from passing. It worked. On the final lap, Waltrip led, Junior was in second, Earnhardt was in third. No one could get to Waltrip or Junior. Waltrip won, Junior finished second. Waltrip’s older brother Darrell was in the Fox broadcasting booth cheering his brother to victory, “You got it, You got it, YOU GOT IT! MIKEY!! ALRIGHT!!” The other drivers finally did get along side Earnhardt. A 1-2-3 finish was slipping out of his grasp. He wanted to finish third, so he continued to try and block. In the last corner, he tried to slip ahead of driver Sterling Marlin, but Marlin was still there. Earnhardt cut across Marlin’s front bumper, lost control, and crashed in the final corner. No big deal, he had crashed in worse looking crashes before.

Michael Waltrip hadn’t won a race in all the 462 NASCAR races he had raced before. In his first race driving for the great Dale Earnhardt, he won the biggest race of all. I liked Michael Waltrip and was so happy when he won! Later I looked at a piece of paper I had made where I listed all the drivers I rooted for, and saw I had chosen Waltrip as my pick for an upset winner. Earnhardt, as his car owner, was supposed to come to victory lane and celebrate with him, but he didn’t. It looked like he might be hurt.

I was concerned when Earnhardt was last shown by Fox as being carried away in an ambulance. I knew he was hurt, but I didn’t think he was dead. I kept watching TV for any potential news report of his condition. It wasn’t until the evening local news where they announced he was dead. I cried. My family had tears, too. When my best friend heard from his dad, he called me to talk about it. Earnhardt had been his favorite driver, too.

It was NASCAR’s biggest tragedy ever. Earnhardt’s death was covered extensively by all major news networks for weeks (the announcement, the reaction, the investigation, the implications). It was the first time a personal hero of mine was killed.

[part 2: It doesn’t get any easier the second time]
[part 3: Safety is a process]
[part 4: It’s worth it]