News & Media

Message at safety conference: Be proactive

December 07, 2011, Mark Aumann,

INDIANAPOLIS -- Despite the inherent danger, racing today is perhaps as safe as it's ever been. But former driver and television commentator Derek Daly implored safety experts attending this week's International Motorsports Industry Show safety and technical conference to not let their guards down.

His keynote message to the group Wednesday at the Indianapolis Convention Center was to begin the search for new safety improvements before they're needed. Daly suffered major leg injuries in a 200-plus mph crash at Michigan in 1984, an accident which triggered significant safety changes to the design of open-wheeled cars.

"I fully understand that sometimes is the trigger," Daly said. "When you get to a safety level and it levels out, you sort of get comfortable with that level. We've now 'done it' until something else major happens, and then there's another rethink."

Daly said drivers all share a common personality trait: They understand the dangers they face but are resistant to authority, particularly when it comes to mandated safety rules and regulations.

"Isn't that a strange, quirky, unusual mental makeup -- that I want to be as safe as possible, but don't tell me what I have to do?" Daly said.

Dr. Teena Garrison, assistant research professor for the Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems at Mississippi State University, said resistance to change is part of human nature. That's particularly true in motorsports, when anything that may reduce the ability to perform at a high level is ignored or worse, treated with derision.

Part of it is due to the culture of the sport, and partly because of human behavior.

"You have to balance safety and performance," Garrison said. "You can come up with all the safety innovations you want, but if you don't protect performance -- or if you start interfering with performance -- the competitors aren't going to care and they'll probably fight tooth and nail against it."

That was the case when NASCAR mandated the wearing of the HANS device and to a lesser extent, when the SAFER barriers were installed. Even something as innocuous as new pavement at Phoenix this fall created concerns in the garage area over grip and side-by-side racing.

It's more about the fear of the unknown than it is about acceptance of a new variable.

"It's very complex," Garrison said. "If you change the track conditions, you change the race conditions. If you change the vehicle characteristics, you change the race conditions. And as soon as you start changing things, the competitors are going to start fighting back."

Garrison deals mainly with law enforcement and firefighters in her research, but the way they deal with the dangers of their jobs is very similar to that of NASCAR drivers and crews.

"They emphasize performance and getting the job done over their own personal safety," Garrison said. "There are risks involved that they just assume and accept, and sometimes embrace.

"Our jobs as engineers then are to basically save the practitioners from themselves. They're not going to design for that. They're not going to worry about that. So we have to do that for them."

Most safety initiatives in motorsports have taken place in response to an event or series of events. For the most part, innovations like seat belts, helmets, fire retardant uniforms and fuel cells were mandated as a result of tragic consequences.

What Garrison and many of the other safety expects in attendance would rather see is a proactive response to safety.

"The proactive side, being able to look more at performance and how to design for this before these events occur, that's where you really have to have the practitioners -- the drivers, the crews -- involved," Garrison said. "They have to be involved in the design and development of it, not just in the equipment but in the procedures. Because then you've got them buying in. They're then invested in making this work."

And that's where leadership at the top can drive the process. Getting everyone on board is easier when the benefits are tangible and the teams have a voice.

"When the sanctioning body says 'do this or else,' those competitors are willing to do it and that's when they're willing to step up," Garrison said. "They may not like it but if they know these are the rules they have to play by, then that's what they'll do.

"If you keep them involved in the design from the beginning, so there are teams who are working with the sanctioning body -- and not necessarily for a competitive advantage -- they have the feedback in that. They have the development and you get the buy-in there. You get something done rather than wait for a tragic event [for innovation]."

Daly has more than a passing interest in the current state of motorsports safety, as his 19-year-old son, Conor, is now driving. Daly still remembers the excitement he felt when he first caught the racing bug.

"My dad took me to my very first race when I was 12 years old," Daly said. "Do you know that I remember the noise and the color and the smell as clearly today as if it happened a month ago? It completely changed my life. And I'll guess there are people here who remember seeing a racing car for the very first time. It just has this ability to draw people in."

The future success of motorsports will be the ability to capture the imagination and attention of the next generation of fans in the same way, by guaranteeing that safety continues to remain at the forefront.

"Try to find a way to make [tracks] as safe as possible, but keep the fans engaged," Daly said. "And you can only keep them engaged by having them as close as possible. It's exactly like when you go to a concert. If you get in the front row, you're engaged at a much higher level than if you're off out in the boondocks and are seeing and hearing it on the big screen TVs.

"I'd love to see the decks cleared on a regular basis and people be open to the wildest new suggestions possible as we continue to make this sport -- that I love and am so passionate about -- safer and better and more engaging for this new generation that's going to love the sport like you and I do now."

Watch highlights of wrecks from the 2011 Sprint Cup Series season: