How Safe Should a Racecar Be? NASCAR Learned the Hard Way


Photo: U.S. Air Force

Walking through the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Glory Road, it’s clear there is no comparison when it comes to safety features on today’s Monster Energy Cup cars with earlier models of its predecessors.

There’s no comparison because the features aren’t there in the older models. From helmets to harnesses and fire extinguishers, these were added as NASCAR learned the hard way through history – because of injury or death.

In the early years, a NASCAR racer often served both as a stock car and a family car. It raced some days and took the family to church on others. Prior to races, modifications were made to prepare the car for the track. Unlike in today’s cars, there were no roll bars or seat belts to keep drivers safe. They were not required when the sport was just emerging in 1948.

The most notable equipment changes came after the death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500. Earnhardt died from blunt force trauma to the head. NASCAR’s response was to introduce full-faced helmets.

‘’I could not stand wearing open-faced helmets during my career,’’ said former driver Ned Jarret. ‘’They were not comfortable at all. They offered very little protection.’’

Full-faced helmets were not the only safety advancement that NASCAR made after Earnhardt’s death. During the 2001 Daytona 500, drivers were using a five-point harness, which included a strap between the legs. It was designed to keep the driver from sliding out from underneath the belts in the event of a head-on crash. After the crash that took Earnhardt’s life, drivers quickly switched to a six-point harness. With a six-point harness, the driver’s belts are wrapped around the legs. All the belts are connected to a single latch that can be released quickly to allow a driver to have a quick exit from his cockpit. NASCAR officials suggest this was a key safety advancement..

“He was a dear friend and he really liked the sport. Dale built NASCAR to what it is today. He will be apart of the sport for many Generations to come.” said Bill France to ABC news.

In addition to the advancements of helmets and harnesses during the 2001 season, the 2003 season also saw major change. NASCAR required an additional fire-extinguishing cylinder solely dedicated to the fuel cell area in all three major touring series.

The fire-extinguishing cylinder was mandated to be mounted in the cockpit. Fire extinguishers were first introduced into NASCAR stock cars after Fireball Roberts crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1964. Roberts was severely burned during the crash and died from his injuries five days later.

“I like the idea of having an additional fire-extinguisher in the car. Especially one that is just for the fuel cell,’’ said driver Matt Kenseth. ‘‘I have been in a lot of hard impact crashes where I was scared the fuel cell would explode.’’

Since Earnhardt’s death, there have been no fatalities or serious injuries in NASCAR sanctioned events. In a recent survey conducted by NASCAR Illustrated, 90 percent of drivers said they felt safer behind the wheel.

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