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A legacy of safety

The quiet after a bad NASCAR wreck is unnerving. Terrifying, even, if it lasts too long.

The roar of the engines fades as cars roll to a stop. Officials in the scoring tower, spotters on the roof and writers in the press box watch the damaged car, hoping, praying that the driver’s side window net comes down. In living rooms across America, fans lean toward the TV, eyes glued to the net, too.

Even inside the car while the crash is happening, the world goes silent, or seems to, at least. As Austin Dillon’s car flew down the frontstretch in 2015 at Daytona in one of the most frightening wrecks in NASCAR history, all he could hear were his own thoughts: You’re OK, you’re OK, you’re OK.

The fact he was indeed OK is nothing short of stunning considering his car flew over two lanes of traffic, slammed into the catchfence and came to a stop on its hood. It was so terrifying crew members from other teams ran out to the car to see if he was OK. Autoweek put a photo of his ripped-to-pieces car on the cover with the headline, “How did Austin Dillon survive this?”

The same question came up last year after Ryan Newman’s horrific wreck at the end of the Daytona 500.

One reason they both survived was that 20 years ago, Dale Earnhardt didn’t.

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David Taylor
David Taylor

Today Steve O’Donnell is NASCAR’s executive vice president and chief racing development officer. In 2001, he worked in NASCAR’s marketing department. He was in Victory Lane after the Daytona 500 that year as Michael Waltrip celebrated the first Cup Series win of his career.

As confetti flittered onto crewmen’s shoulders and champagne soaked their hair, O’Donnell saw driver Kenny Schrader come into Victory Lane. Schrader — normally a talkative man with dancing eyes and a quick wit — looked stricken.

He had been involved in a last-lap wreck with Dale Earnhardt. After Schrader’s car stopped, he climbed out, walked over to Earnhardt’s car, looked in the driver’s side window and immediately waved for help. It would be years before he said so publicly, but he knew right away what the world would learn in a few hours: Earnhardt, the seven-time champion, was dead.

Earnhardt’s death was the fourth in less than a year across NASCAR’s three national series. In 2000, Tony Roper, Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin all died of the same injury as Earnhardt — basilar skull fractures

Because Earnhardt was a seven-time NASCAR champion and icon in and out of the sport, his death prompted a massive safety revolution that now permeates every corner of the sport. “The impact that he has had after his death on the safety of this sport has been something that’s just far greater than would have happened with anybody else,” said Kevin Harvick, the 2014 champion who replaced Earnhardt at Richard Childress Racing and now drives for Stewart-Haas Racing.

The safety revolution started immediately, and 20 years later it hasn’t stopped. Andy Petree, now the VP of competition at Richard Childress Racing who in 2001 owned a two-car race team, says his cars became “75 percent” safer the very next day after changes to the seats, headrests and belts.

At Rockingham the week after Earnhardt’s death and for years to come, safety became a hotly debated topic. What should be done? How should it be done? When should it be done?

The impact that he has had after his death on the safety of this sport has been something that’s just far greater than would have happened with anybody else.

Before Earnhardt’s death, some in the sport were reluctant to seek or listen to outside advice on safety. After, NASCAR worked with a variety of organizations on safety issues. “I think that was the right thing to do — to get outside opinions and have other people look at the whole situation,” said Richard Childress, Earnhardt’s team owner and close friend. “I think as terrible as it was — and we’ll never get over losing Dale Earnhardt — there’s a lot that came out of it (with) the safety part going forward.”

The NASCAR Research & Development Center opened in suburban Charlotte in 2002, and work there has led the industry through a series of changes unprecedented in scope and effectiveness. In the 20 years since Earnhardt died, nobody else has died in one of NASCAR’s top three series (Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Trucks). “That’s the legacy that Dale leaves,” says Petree, a former Earnhardt crew chief, friend and business partner.

John Patalak, NASCAR’s senior director of safety engineering, puts safety improvements into three “buckets”: the track, the car and the driver restraint system. Each has undergone massive changes in the last 20 years. Highlights of the safety improvements include:

In 2001, NASCAR mandated drivers use HANS (Head And Neck Support restraint) devices. The HANS device is widely considered the most important safety development in the car in the history of racing. Basilar skull fractures are caused when the seat belts catch the body and the head keeps going. The HANS device allows the head and body to move in sync, preventing a whiplash effect.

In 2002, tracks began replacing concrete walls with energy-absorbing SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barriers. This was completed at all ovals by 2005. This is the most important development other than the HANS device.

In 2003, the free-pass rule was implemented. It froze the field the instant a caution came out, eliminating the previous practice of racing back to the start-finish line. The first driver a lap down is given his or her lap back.

In 2007, NASCAR required drivers use a six-point harness system. Once-common sternum injuries virtually disappeared. Today, NASCAR requires at least a seven-point system and recommends a nine-point system. Each belt is designed to catch the driver in a different kind of collision.

In 2007, the driver was moved toward the center of the car and energy-absorbing material was added to the driver’s side door panel.

In 2013, new roll bars, which had been repeatedly updated over the years, added greater rollover protection.

In 2017, NASCAR formed a partnership with AMR (American Medical Response) to increase the on-track team’s medical capabilities. A physician was added to the chase vehicle.

Just as important as the improvements in equipment were improvements in attitude. Earnhardt’s death started a wholesale change in the culture of the sport. Before he died, safety was an important issue, but it was also kept at arm’s length. It was talked about, but not much, and certainly not the way it’s talked about today.

Earnhardt himself was ambivalent about some aspects of safety. He supported “soft walls” before most of the garage. But he bristled at other innovations. When asked about an attempt to slow the cars down, he said this: “If you’re not a race driver, stay the hell home. Don’t come here and grumble about going too fast. Get the hell out of the race car if you’ve got feathers on your legs and butt. Put a kerosene rag around your ankles so the ants won’t climb up and eat that candy ass.”


While Earnhardt might have put it the most colorfully, he certainly wasn’t alone. A common attitude was that racing was inherently dangerous, and that was part of its appeal. The courage to race was inextricably linked to the danger of it. To bristle at the danger was to show a lack of courage. That attitude has been almost completely swept away in the two decades since then. The danger of racing is still a large part of its appeal. But nobody scoffs at attempts to make the sport safer.

The change in culture and the change in safety happened together, though not necessarily at the same speed or at the same time. It happened in fits and starts as new advances were introduced, debated and adopted.

Generally speaking, the safety changes came first and the shift in culture followed. For example, some drivers blanched at the mandate of the HANS device, either because they didn’t like wearing it or didn’t believe it made a difference or both. Nobody would go near a car without one now.

The free-pass rule is a good example, too. At the time, some drivers and fans criticized it as hokey and unnecessary, not “real racing.” Today, it seems archaic that any sanctioning body would allow drivers to race in the seconds immediately after throwing a caution flag.

The change in culture permeates the entire sport. Drivers and executives talk about fear, danger and safety in ways they never did a decade ago. Whereas early on in the revolution the safety innovations ran ahead of the culture, today the culture of safety drives the innovation in search of it. NASCAR’s focus on safety is now baked into every decision about the car and the track. “It makes my job much easier when the entire industry is pushing to make the sport safer,” Patalak says.

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The worst wrecks, drivers say, are the ones that take a long time to unfold. For example, at Pocono Raceway in 2018, Bubba Wallace’s brakes failed. Even though he was going well over 150 miles per hour, he had time to think as his car headed straight for the wall. He was not thinking about the HANS device, the SAFER barrier or innovations in the car that disperse energy away from the driver. But they all kept him safe in a situation that was nothing of the sort.

“There’s a sense of being terrified. Not like watching a scary movie and being scared for a second, jumping out of your skin for a second,” he said. “This one is, am I going to die? That’s exactly what I asked myself. I was terrified.”

Most crashes, especially at superspeedways Daytona and Talladega, allow no time for such terrifying thoughts. To describe them takes far longer than they take to actually happen. Such was the case with Ryan Newman on the last lap of the Daytona 500 last year in one of the most analyzed and discussed wrecks since the one that killed Earnhardt.

Newman took the lead coming out of Turn 4; his second Daytona 500 win seemingly close at hand. Newman ducked low to block Ryan Blaney. Blaney’s nose made contact with Newman’s bumper, and Newman’s No. 6 car spun sideways, while still in the lead, so he was perpendicular to the track in front of the entire field.

His car hit the outside wall with his driver’s side door, the nose of his car facing the wrong direction. He rolled over onto his hood in the center of the track. Corey LaJoie’s car T-boned Newman on the driver’s side and roof. The contact sent Newman tumbling. His car landed on its roof, slid down the track and came to a rest in the infield. Flames shot out from under his car.

NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell watched from high above the frontstretch. In his role as executive vice president, he is ultimately in charge of safety. But in the immediate few seconds after the crash, O’Donnell reacted like the race fan he is. He watched the window net. He listened for radio communication. The net didn’t come down. Newman didn’t talk on his radio. Those are the first two signs a worst-case scenario is unfolding.

Very quickly, O’Donnell’s training kicked in. For years, NASCAR officials — emergency crews, medical personnel and executives among them — have rehearsed bad crash scenarios.

The most productive emotion is curiosity. How can we do it better?

Far below O’Donnell, paramedics arrived at Newman’s car 35 seconds after the crash. According to John Bobo, NASCAR’s vice president of racing operations, they had rehearsed the rollover scenario in the months leading up to the race.

At every track NASCAR visits, crews train for numerous situations two months before the event. Bobo compared the reaction to a crash to an orchestra; everybody has a role to play, and the only way to perform flawlessly is to rehearse. “It instills that muscle memory that allows emergency responders to respond,” he said.

ER doctors practice procedures while upside down, extraction crews practice cutting away windshields, and fire crews practice dousing flames. Just like the search for a safer car never stops, the work to respond better never ends, either.

“The most productive emotion is curiosity,” Bobo said. “How can we do it better? How can we communicate everything we’ve learned to each other?”

Up in the booth, O’Donnell ran through next steps. “What’s the tower communication to the folks on the ground? How does that work? How are we collecting as much data as possible, post-incident to make sure that we can learn everything we possibly can?”

Newman was taken to the hospital where he was briefly put in a medically induced coma. He walked out two days later, holding his young daughters’ hands. He said he survived because of a variety of factors. Among them were his helmet, the roll cage and the work of safety crews. “There were multiple miracles that aligned for me to walk out days later with my arms around my daughters,” he told reporters weeks later.

Nowhere was the change in safety culture more obvious than the week after Newman’s wreck. O’Donnell and other NASCAR officials presented a second-by-second breakdown of the safety and emergency crew responses. That level of detail and accountability were missing before Earnhardt’s death.

•   •   •

In the years after Earnhardt’s death, the sport focused on “low-hanging fruit,” as Patalak calls it. That included mandating SAFER barriers, the HANS device, closed-face helmets and other improvements.

All of those made huge differences. In recent years and going forward, Patalak says, improvements will be incremental. The Next Gen car, which will be introduced next season, has safety improvements built-in from the beginning, as opposed to added to an already existing car, as has often been the case. The two biggest changes are improved roof deck strength and stronger tubing within the chassis.

Some of the most innovative work happening in the safety realm now is in the accumulation of information.

Incident data recorders, commonly known as black boxes, were installed in 2002 and updated in 2011 and again in 2018.

High-speed cameras turn on in the cockpit the split second a wreck starts. That allows investigators to see what happens to the driver as opposed to relying on reconstruction analysis. For example, before the camera, if a driver said he or she hurt their shoulder in a wreck, investigators would examine the car to see if there was any evidence of where that shoulder hit. Now, they can see exactly what happened.

NASCAR has experimented with putting load sensors in the belts to get real data in the case of hard hits. That has been limited to the lab so far because the weight of the sensors is problematic inside a race car where every ounce matters.

Under a pilot program through Wake Forest University, NASCAR has also sought ways to use mouthpieces with sensors. It’s is remarkable, if you think about it: The sensor is contained within the driver’s body. That’s a level of data never available before.

With those new ways of collecting hard data, Patalak and his team now understand far more about what happens in a crash than they used to. That will allow them to devise ways to make the car safer. “Computer modeling is a really big advancement,” Patalak said. “It will allow us to dive deep on things we were blind to in the past.”

The deeper they dive, the more they realize when it comes to safety, they’ll never reach the bottom. That’s because there isn’t one. There’s always new information, new technology, new materials. As O’Donnell said: “Even when you think you’ve done all you can, you’re not even close.”