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

“People watch racing just for the crashes.”

Have you heard this? Maybe you’ve said it. It may be true to some extent in NASCAR, but I don’t think it’s so true for fans of open-wheel racing.

I find that phrase annoying. It’s like saying that crashes are exciting, and the actual racing is boring. I don’t like to see crashes in racing for several reasons. Crashes… 1) are dangerous. Someone can get hurt. 2) negatively affect the outcome of the race. When drivers crash, the level of competition is lowered for the remainder of the race, and the best drivers/teams may not win. 3) cause the race to last longer. It takes time to clean up the wrecks. 4) sometimes include my favorite drivers (example: Will Power and Tony Kanaan at Fontana… Both lost championships as a result).

And yet, ironically, the existence of crashes adds some intrigue to the racing. To be fast is to be near the edge of control. To see a driver not crash when they could have can be really exciting (example: The last half-lap of this year’s NASCAR race at Watkins Glen… the top two drivers were sliding all over the place and running into each other, yet hung on to finish).

What do I like about racing? A lot of things. Racing became my favorite sport after playing a computer game when I was 6 years old. Since then, the simple action of a racing car on a race track is attractive to me. Along with that I like the competition, certain drivers, the tracks, the looks of the cars, the skill, etc.

The reality is that I can not pick and choose. The highs and lows come together in a package. For me: the highs are worth enduring the lows. After the two deaths discussed in this series, and the observation of more from the study of racing history, I never considered the option to stop liking racing.

In conclusion, death in racing is a a real issue that I’ve had to deal with. The tragic deaths of Earnhardt, Wheldon, and other drivers have deeply saddened and impacted me. Racing is still dangerous, but it’s a lot safer than it used to be. The entire package is not perfect, no, but I like it enough to keep following the sport.

[part 1: The greatest race that isn’t]
[part 2: It doesn’t get any easier the second time]
[part 3: Safety is a process]

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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 allĀ  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]