By RICK MINTER / Universal Uclick
Ten years ago on the NASCAR circuit, rarely a day or a press conference went by without a discussion of safety.
Those times were as troubling for NASCAR as they come. There had been three on-track deaths the year before – Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin Jr., eight weeks apart, both in Turn Three at New Hampshire, then Tony Roper at Texas.
Then in the season-opening Daytona 500 in 2001, the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt, died on the last lap of the race. Just when it looked like the sport might be able to put its tragedies behind for a bit, Blaise Alexander was killed in a crash during an ARCA race at Charlotte.
NASCAR itself, as well as its drivers and teams, began to react in 2000, looking to make the cars and tracks safer, but the initiative really ramped up after Earnhardt’s death.
Ten years later there have been no deaths on the track, and even serious injuries have become rare, thanks to innovations like SAFER barriers, commonly known as soft walls, HANS head-and-neck restraints and the safety features incorporated into the Car of Tomorrow. Safety issues are rarely discussed in press conferences, and drivers seem more at ease these days.
Jeff Burton, who stepped up as a garage leader especially on matters of safety during the days after Earnhardt’s death, said the mindset in NASCAR is somewhat different today. But he said that drivers, by their nature, tend to think more about how to make their cars faster than they do about what might happen to them in a crash.
“I think it’s important to know that I don’t really know that we really ever felt unsafe,” Burton said. “I think people don’t understand that we’ve had huge safety improvements, but in many cases we didn’t really know that we weren’t doing as well as we were doing it.”
Some have said that periods of aggressive racing and the “Boys, have at it” stance by NASCAR come about because of the safety changes made since the deaths of 2000 and 2001, the thinking being that drivers make risky moves because they don’t believe they’ll get hurt in doing so.
Burton said that’s just not so.
“I find that kind of ridiculous, to be quite honest,” he said. “I don’t believe people drive in race cars worried about getting hurt.”
That school of thought was evident in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s comments last week at Watkins Glen.
“The cars are safe, and we are not in physical danger of injury,” he said. “That kind of stuff may loom large in stick and ball sports, but in our sport, really the only thing you’ve got to worry about is burning yourself out mentally. If you just prepare yourself for that, you can handle that.
“It’s a little bit different since we are driving race cars, and we’ve got all the safety equipment that we have to keep us in one piece.”
Burton said that drivers try to maintain an attitude like Earnhardt Jr.’s.
“Race car drivers have a way of sliding that stuff in the back of their head,” he said. “I really can’t say that I have a different comfort level. I do know I have a comfort level that everybody is way more proactive than we used to be. And I knew we weren’t proactive prior to [Earnhardt’s death].”
Burton also pointed out that while there have been great strides on the safety front, there are still many places on race tracks where drivers could get hurt.
“We still have concrete walls,” he said. “We still have a lot of places on the race track that don’t have SAFER barriers. We’ve seen drivers hit in openings in walls and stuff like that even after all of these things we’ve learned.
“That gets a little frustrating from time to time. You shouldn’t have to re-learn things. You learn it, you ought to apply it. And sometimes we’ve haven’t done as good a job as we’ve needed to do in those areas.”
Burton said that even though there haven’t been any fatal accidents, tracks still need to address their safety issues. Watkins Glen made some changes since last year’s race there.
“I think the main initiative now is to continue looking at our race tracks and continue to make improvements by having SAFER barriers, by having the openings in the wall constructed better,” he said. “There are still some infield walls that drivers can get into and get into an awful position by hitting the wrong way.
“We’ve got to go and fix all those problems that could be out there. You can’t halfway do anything. When the race tracks made the huge investments they made to put the softer walls in, that was awesome. That was great. Now they’ve got to go make the other investment to put it everywhere.
“You think about Daytona, for example. More wrecks happen on the straights than they do in the corners. We need softer walls everywhere. We need to look at openings and the grass. Grass at race tracks is ridiculous. They should never have grass on race tracks.
“All those things need to be looked at and taken care of.”
He said the same is true of the cars.
“The way to do that is to keep looking and not be afraid to look and not to be afraid of what the answer is going to be,” he said. “And NASCAR has done a great job of that. They went from very reactionary to very proactive. They’ve stepped it up.”