News & Media

Safety improvements, changes define racing eras

February 16, 2011, Mark Aumann,

Trying to equate the safety features on today's modern Sprint Cup car with those of its predecessors is an impossibility. The cars in that first Strictly Stock race at Charlotte Speedway in 1949 were not even required to have roll bars or seat belts.

In many cases, cars were borrowed or rented, driven to the track, basic modifications made and raced. They were true stock cars, in every sense of the word. And in 20-20 hindsight, incredibly unsafe.

Supporting safety

One of the most important safety advances in the history of racing is manufactured in a nondescript, one-story brick building on the same street as a ceramics shop, a company that creates stained glass and a pet mortuary. Welcome to the home of the HANS device.

Contrast that to the accident at Pocono last summer in which Elliott Sadler collided with an earthen berm at nearly a 90-degree angle at speed and walked away, recording what was believed to be the highest g-forces of any accident since black boxes were mandated in the early 2000s.

In fact, the last Cup driver to lose appreciable time because of injuries from an accident was Dario Franchitti, who broke his ankle while driving in a Nationwide Series car at Talladega.

Safety advances in NASCAR have, with a few exceptions, come as the result of tragic consequences. Five-point safety harnesses, fuel cells, on-board fire extinguishers, purpose-built racing seats, soft wall technology and head and neck restraints were all solutions to dangers exposed by racing conditions.

The idea of relative safety as it pertains to racing remains a moving target. What seems "safe" at the time is almost always outdated when looked at from the standpoint of history. Steve Peterson, NASCAR's technical director before his death in 2008, said every era can be defined by the safety improvements made during that period.

"When you go back in the history of auto racing, that's happened," Peterson said. "In the '60s, with the roll cage. In the '50s, with the roll bars. In the '40s, it was the crash helmets."

And yet, the industry as a whole has traditionally been resistant to change.

"In the '50s, my dad made seat belts mandatory [at family-owned Chemung Speedrome], and drivers were protesting," Brett Bodine said. "They would not race. He made them all put a seat belt in and they said, 'We're not racing.' "

But that long-time mindset evaporated following the investigation into Dale Earnhardt's death at Daytona in 2001. NASCAR immediately began to take a proactive and aggressive stance on safety, opening a new research and development center near Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2002 with safety first and foremost in mind.

The current Cup chassis, introduced in 2007, is a perfect state-of-the-art marriage of form and function. Some of the safety improvements included moving the driver's seat closer to the center of the car, enlarging the cockpit area and adding crushable material in the doorframes.

So how has racing safety evolved? Here are some examples:


The first helmets used by NASCAR drivers were of a design called a Cromwell, which basically looked like a hardhat attached over the ears and under the chin with a leather strap.

"Those early helmets were like wearing a flower pot on your head with leather straps," NASCAR Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett was quoted as saying. "At the time, we felt like it was the state-of-the-art helmet because that was about all you could get.

"Over the years, helmets were made of fiberglass that fit around your face and down the back of your neck for better protection and they were priced at $35."

"Basically controlling risk during crashes is an energy-management problem. Our knowledge and understanding of energy management today is a lot better than it was in 1998. And in 1998, it was a lot better than it was in 1988."


By 1957, a California company named Bell began manufacturing polystyrene open-faced helmets for racing and law enforcement. Dan Gurney wore Bell's first full-faced racing helmet in the 1968 Indianapolis 500. But open-faced helmets remained a staple in NASCAR for several more decades.

When he moved from modifieds to the Cup circuit in the early '80s, Geoff Bodine brought along his full-face helmet. But NASCAR didn't make a full-face helmet mandatory until Earnhardt was killed.

An accident on pit road which resulted in severe head injuries to a crewman in the final race of the 2001 season forced NASCAR to require helmets for over-the-wall crew members beginning in 2002.

Seat belts

The first U.S. patent for a safety belt was issued in 1885, but they were considered optional items by manufacturers until 1963, when front seat lap belts were mandated. Most drivers in that era used rope or aircraft harnesses to hold themselves in place while racing.

By the early 1960s, shoulder straps were added but many drivers were resistant to the change, particularly since the threat of fire was a constant issue. The five-point harness, which includes a strap between the legs, is designed to keep the driver from "submarining," or sliding out underneath the belts in the event of a head-on collision.

After Earnhardt was killed while wearing a five-point harness, many drivers switched to a six-point harness, in which belts are wrapped around the legs. All the belts are connected to a single latch that can be released quickly to allow for a quick exit from the cockpit.

Roll cages

It wasn't until 1952 that NASCAR's rule book required a roll bar that went from the doorpost to the roof of the car to keep the roof from caving in, in the event of a rollover crash. Eventually that led to teams building roll cages inside the factory-ordered vehicles.

Starting in 1960, John Holman and Ralph Moody of the Ford factory team began designing roll cages and then adding the bodywork around the completed frame, which remains the standard today. During that decade, additional bars were added to the frame and doors.

With the advent of the current chassis design, NASCAR officials require each to be certified for competition -- and in the event of an accident, it must be re-certified before getting the go-ahead to be used again. That demanded an advanced chassis certification and inspection process, one that allows NASCAR to identify and keep records on each unique chassis, provide accurate measurements to within one-ten-thousandths of an inch and improve tolerances.

Fuel cells

Until 1964, most teams used a welded metal fuel tank. But those would rupture in hard crashes, and leak if the car got upside down. The inherent dangers of fuel tanks were brought to the forefront during the 1964 World 600, when Fireball Roberts was severely burned when his car flipped and caught fire.

The solution was to use a fuel cell, reinforced with a rubber bladder and foam. In the event of an accident, the fuel cell is designed to limit the potential for ignition of the fuel and to keep it from leaking.

Fire retardant uniforms

Drivers wore little more than jeans and a T-shirt in NASCAR's early days, although fire retardant solutions were sometimes added to the material in an effort to give the driver time to escape a burning vehicle. However, Roberts' accident -- and the deaths of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald at Indianapolis that May -- resulted in the development of uniforms that would better protect drivers in the event of fire.

DuPont began development of a fire-retardant material called Nomex in the early '60s and by 1966, drivers like Walt Hansgen, Masten Gregory, Marvin Panch and Bob Tullius were testing experimental Nomex uniforms. Today, drivers wear several layers of fire-retardant clothing, including underwear and gloves made from Nomex, allowing them to withstand flames until safety crews can arrive on the scene.

Onboard fire extinguishers

As a result of the Roberts accident, NASCAR began requiring fire extinguishers to be carried in the cockpit of all cars. In the five decades since that accident, fire-fighting improvements have been continuously added.

In 2003, NASCAR required an additional fire-extinguishing cylinder solely dedicated to the fuel cell area in all three major touring series, mounted in the cockpit and automatically activated by heat.

Advances in tires

Just like the cars, the tires used in NASCAR's early years were production models, usually truck tires that could better withstand the high speeds and cornering on dirt tracks. But as more races were run on asphalt superspeedways, tire manufacturers realized major improvements needed to be made.

After Billy Wade was killed during a tire test at Daytona in 1964, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. began developing a safety liner, so that in the event of a blowout at speed, the inner liner remains inflated.

Window netting

The idea of a window net keeping the driver secure inside the cockpit was first suggested after two-time champion Joe Weatherly died after striking his head on a guard rail during a race at Riverside in 1964. But NASCAR didn't mandate window nets for another seven years.

It wasn't until Richard Petty's grinding rollover crash during the 1970 Rebel 400 at Darlington that window nets became mandatory instead of optional. During that accident, Petty's helmet and left arm were left danging out of the car. He struck his helmet on the pavement several times and suffered a serious shoulder injury.

Racing seats

Before NASCAR's modern era, most drivers relied on a modified passenger car bench seat with the back removed. Modified single seats began to be used in the 1970s, with racing seats being introduced by the 1980s. Following a number of accidents involving serious head injuries, padded headrests were made mandatory.

Former driver Randy LaJoie is a leading advocate for racing seat technology. His company, The Joie of Seating, is any industry leader. And he estimates that less than 30 percent of the cars racing in the United States meet minimum safety requirements.

Dale Earnhardt - 3 - A Look Back

When he visits the track, he closely watches how seats are being installed by race teams.

"When they come through, I want to stand there when they get inspected," he said. "I want to hand them a sheet that I inspected their car and I'll give them suggestions.

"If they've got good stuff, they've got good stuff. But at the end of the day, I want to get with the track guys and tell them, 'Hey, five guys went through and their seats only have three bolts in them.' And pass that along to the chassis builders to make these cars safer."

LaJoie said many drivers just aren't that knowledgeable about safety.

"The biggest part is that some of them just don't know what can happen to them," LaJoie said. "It's their own decision. At the end of the day, it's that individual's decision to make themselves safe."

Softwall technology

Concerned with the rising number of high-impact crashes resulting in driver injuries, then-Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George began looking for a solution. The first application, a Polyethylene Energy Dissipating System -- or PEDS -- was designed by retired General Motors engineer John Pierce and placed on an interior wall near the entrance to pit road in 1998.

It received its first real test when Arie Luyendyk struck it at a high rate of speed during the International Race of Champions event later that season. It kept the driver from suffering serious injuries, but the barrier came apart under the stress of the crash, littering the track with pieces of plastic, creating a safety hazard for the other cars and requiring an extensive cleanup.

So George turned to Midwest Roadside Safety Facility director Dr. Dean Sicking, a civil engineer. Sicking helped redesign the PEDS barrier and began work on his own design, putting crushable foam insulation behind a series of square steel tubes. By 2000, NASCAR had joined in the development of the project. And the first SAFER barriers were ready for installation at the Speedway in time for the 2002 Indianapolis 500.

The benefits were immediate, as no drivers suffered significant injuries as a result of contact with the SAFER barrier. NASCAR officials then went to Lincoln, Neb., for a series of tests using heavier stock cars, and came away impressed. Within the next two years, nearly every track on the Cup schedule would have SAFER barriers at key locations.

"Every decade, there's a significant improvement in the level of understanding of energy management," Sicking said. "Basically controlling risk during crashes is an energy-management problem. Our knowledge and understanding of energy management today is a lot better than it was in 1998. And in 1998, it was a lot better than it was in 1988.

"It takes about eight to 10 years to get a significant improvement in technology. The SAFER barrier really helped us a lot in our program, in particular, in the analysis procedure we use to design barriers. It was a tremendous analysis problem to be able to design the SAFER barrier for impacts at the speeds and angles we were looking at in NASCAR. And that helped us learn a lot about doing analysis that we haven't been able to do in the past, in designing other barriers."

Since the SAFER barriers have been in place, Sicking said there has not been a fatality resulting from an incident with an outer wall barrier in any of NASCAR's three major series.

"We think the magnitude of the safety problem associated with outer wall barriers has been dramatically reduced," Sicking said. "Up until 2001 or 2002, the highest risk for a driver was striking the outer wall barrier at a high angle at high speed. That's no longer true."

And Sicking applauds the sanctioning body for taking safety seriously.

"NASCAR's doing the right thing," he said "They focused on the outer barrier because that was their biggest problem. It's now no longer their biggest problem, so they're studying the complete safety of their tracks to make sure they are focusing energy, resources and attention on solving the biggest safety problem, and car-to-car is certainly one of those. And that's with the [new car]."