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Caraviello: Even with safety advances, big hits keep coming

August 20, 2011, David Caraviello,

Scary crashes at Watkins Glen reinforce how safe NASCAR has become

Denny Hamlin called it "terrifying," and it was absolutely that -- even for a spectator. There is not a more helpless, stomach-dropping sight in all of auto racing than a vehicle screaming toward a wall at triple-digit speed, unable to slow down or turn away. You suck in your breath, clench your teeth, and wait for it. Now just imagine what it's like from the driver's vantage point, the out-of-control feeling, the sight of that barrier filling up more and more of the front windshield, the knowledge that the impact is coming, but you can't do anything to prevent it.

Manic Monday

There were plenty of hard crashes in the annual Cup Series event at Watkins Glen.

It's awful enough to watch, and surely much worse to experience firsthand. This has been a tough few weeks for drivers in NASCAR's premier series, several of whom have endured big hits that serve as vivid reminders of the risk always inherent to this sport. Brad Keselowski struck a wall testing at Road Atlanta and fractured an ankle. Hamlin, Kurt Busch and Paul Menard all slammed hard into barriers at Watkins Glen. David Reutimann, David Ragan, and Ron Fellows all walked gingerly into and out of the care center after being involved in a final-lap pile-up Monday that featured cars ricocheting off two walls and a vehicle going airborne.

It was all scary stuff, evidence that no matter how advanced the safety systems are these days, risk is always there, as much a part of racing as tires or fuel. It's been forced back down in its hole a bit by modern innovations like impact-absorbing walls, head-and-neck restraining collars, and vehicles outfitted not just to go fast but to better protect the occupant within. All of those are life-saving mechanisms that proved themselves Monday as they have many times before, and without them the result of an impact like the one Hamlin weathered at Watkins Glen may very well have been devastating.

Thankfully he walked away, a credit to all the work done by people like Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barrier developer Dean Sicking, Head and Neck Support (HANS) device inventors Jim Downing and Bob Hubbard, and all those folks at the NASCAR Research and Development Center who designed -- and took a lot of grief for, initially -- what used to be called the Car of Tomorrow. Speaking outside the Watkins Glen care center, Hamlin couldn't praise enough the benefits of his seven-point harness, which he uses instead of the more standard five-point type. Racing in NASCAR is so much safer than it was a decade ago, at times it doesn't even feel like the same sport.

One thing, though, remains a constant -- the big hit. It's always out there, waiting, an inevitability in a pursuit where 43 cars travel in high speeds between concrete walls. Not even the most the most up-to-date safety advances can prevent it, and it can still make the blood run cold. Two weeks ago, a brief dispatch from Penske Racing saying Keselowski had been transferred to a local hospital after crashing at Road Atlanta sent a shiver down the spine until further details were revealed. Monday, hearing the silence on Hamlin's radio and not seeing the window net drop immediately turned the stomach into knots. Big hits bring back too many bad memories of dark times.

Those hits are often also unavoidable, given how fast cars are and how aggressive competition can be today. But they've always been around, and always will be. Hamlin's crash Monday was eerily similar to another big hit that occurred in the same corner of the same Watkins Glen track 11 years ago, when a then-Nationwide Series driver named Jimmie Johnson overran Turn 1, careered through the runoff area, and hammered the barrier with so much force that people still gasp when they see the accident on replays.

"That is one of two moments that I have had in my career where I thought it was over," remembered Johnson, who before his current run of Sprint Cup titles was best known for the crash more than anything else. "It is such a weird experience to go through. When I came up over the rise in Turn 1 and saw the white, I thought it was concrete. So, at that point, I knew what kind of trouble I was in. Fortunately, [it was] multiple layers of a soft wall system and everything turned out like it did."

On the mend

After a hard, last-lap crash at Watkins Glen, David Ragan and David Reutimann say they are fine and ready for Michigan.

It was foam, a cheap substitute for a SAFER barrier, but the best the track had and thankfully enough at the time. No wonder Johnson got out of the car, climbed onto the roof, and held his arms in the air as if he had just won a heavyweight prizefight. The wall Keselowski hammered at Road Atlanta -- an unsanctioned track where many teams test -- wasn't protected at all when he hit it at 100 mph, fracturing his left ankle in the process. Monday's spate of accidents knocked the wind out of Hamlin and Fellows, and left Reutimann limping with a gash in one leg of his firesuit. No question, all involved were sore the next day.

Seeing so many scary accidents occur in such a short span of time is something of a shock, given that the sport has reached such a level of safety, we're more accustomed to drivers getting hurt messing around on boat docks or playing Frisbee than from accidents in the car. Within the past 10 years, NASCAR has progressed from a series with a shaky safety record to perhaps the safest form of big-league motorsports in the world, and the events of the past two weeks have done nothing to shake that reputation -- in fact, they only reinforce it. It's amazing to watch these drivers walk away from some of the hits we've seen recently. No wonder fans applaud when they do. Each time is a small miracle, a testament to all those sled tests and computer simulations that resulted in advancements that save lives.

And yet this is all a fluid exercise, one in which safety and speed are always trying to keep pace with one another, and it is devoid of absolutes. Engineers in the arena of safety are trying to harness something they can't completely control. Parts still fail, tires still blow. Cars still hit head-on, still get T-boned, still go airborne. They still manage to find those parts of tracks that aren't or can't be completely protected. Eventually there will be some other incident, at Watkins Glen or at some other track, that will involve cars hitting some part of a speedway no one ever thought they'd hit, and drivers will climb out and level complaints like the ones Ragan and Reutimann made Monday.

Which is absolutely their prerogative, given that they're the ones behind the wheel. These are all tough guys, even if they don't look or act the way Cale or Junior or Pearson once did, and to hear one of them profess experiencing terror in the car should dismiss the notion that walking away from a wrecked race car is routine. The tracks are bigger, the speeds are higher, and the action is more aggressive, and drivers have every right to demand safety improvements where they see them needed. Crashes by Jeff Gordon alone have led to changes at Las Vegas, Richmond, and Watkins Glen. Officials at the Glen plan to review the big accident that marred the end of Monday's race, and speak with NASCAR to see if further enhancements are needed.

Conversations toward that end are already underway -- NASCAR spoke to the track earlier this week, and planned to engage Sicking's group at the University of Nebraska to look at what improvements should be made. Given the history of these kinds of incidents, we may see changes in that area by the time the circuit returns to the Glen next year. And then someone will hit somewhere else, and this entire process will repeat itself. The results of accidents can be managed to a degree, but not the accidents themselves. Vehicles traveling at high speeds are unpredictable machines. Cars can be made into tanks, driver cockpits can be converted into cocoons, and walls can be covered with impact-absorbent materials -- but in auto racing, the big hits will always keep on coming.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.