Tuesday, June 24, 2008

As A Follow-Up...

Yesterday, I touched on the subject of Scott Kalitta and what can be done about drag racing. First off, an interesting and absurdly simple solution to the problem of outdated drag strips from SpeedTV.com's Gregg Leary here. Read his argument and try to tell me that's a bad idea.

Second, I didn't get a chance to go over some of the reasons that death in motorsport has become, ultimately, a good thing for the drivers and spectators who live on. I know that's a tough thing to say, but driver deaths lead to better safety for everyone involved.

I'm going to take a look at some major incidents over the years and talk about how those incidents shaped the racing safety community.

Le Mans, 1955
One of the most horrific moments in the history of auto racing only led to the death of one driver, but Pierre Levegh's Mercedes-Benz flew in a fireball into a spectator area, showering it with flaming fuel and debris. All told, Levegh and 82 spectators were killed in the incident. Though sparked by the slowing Jaguar of Mike Hawthorn, officials decided that the fatalities were due more in part to the lack of safety standards at Le Mans, and effort was put into making the bleachers along the pit straight, an extremely fast part of the track at that time, safer for everyone.

Indianapolis, 1964
Though many people had died competing in the Indianapolis 500, the incident on Lap 2 of the 1964 race was one of the most spectacular, and changed the way Indy Cars were powered forever. Coming out of Turn 4, Dave McDonald's highly unstable "Skateboard" car broke loose and struck the inside wall. The impact ruptured McDonald's fuel tank and sparked a massive fuel explosion. Eddie Sachs, one of the most popular drivers in the race, hit the stricken car and was caught up in the fire as well. McDonald and Sachs both perished due to the burns they suffered. Because a gasoline fire was so difficult to extinguish, it was decided that, if the flames had been put out sooner, one or both of the drivers might have been saved. As such, Indy Cars switched over to alcohol fuel, whose flames can be extinguished by a simple bucket of water.

Hockenheim, 1968
The world lost one of its greatest racers at this Formula 2 race in 1968, and the results if the incident led to the first emasculation of one of Germany's great racetracks. Jim Clark, heading on the long blast between the Stadion and Ostkurve sections of the Hockenheimring, lost control of his car and spun into the deep forest on the side of the track. The collision with a tree fractured his neck and skull, leading to his death. It was decided that the track, renowned for its two gigantic straights that led deep into the forest, needed to have some sort of modification to slow the cars. The chosen modifications were a series of chicanes that broke up the long blasts. In 2002, the track was, as some purists would say, "neutered," to curb the high speeds of Formula One cars and allow greater opportunities for passing.

Indianapolis, 1973
For a very long time at Indianapolis, a concrete wall came from far inside of Turn 4, at an angle, to the inside edge of the front straightaway. During the 1973 500-mile race, Swede Savage, a rookie pegged by many to become a great champion, lost control of his car off of the fourth turn and hit that angled wall at great speed. His car shattered on impact, and Savage died in the hospital later on. The Speedway's management decided that, in order to lessen the chance of another such impact, they would move that wall back away from the track. Now, even if a car should spin in a similar fashion off of Turn 4, it will be able to lose a lot of speed spinning across the asphalt.

Nürburgring, 1976
Though this accident did not take a life, it very nearly did and it provided the impetus for one of the greatest comebacks in sports history. Despite concerns about the safety of the mighty, 14-mile Nürburgring, the 1976 German Grand Prix went on as scheduled. Coming through the quick section between Breidscheid and Bergwerk, Niki Lauda's Ferrari lost control and slammed into the side of a hill next to the track. The burns that Lauda suffered were considered by many to be fatal, but they were minimized by the fact that three of Lauda's fellow drivers stopped their cars to help Lauda out of his. This led to near-universal criticism of the Nürburgring's safety and the ability of safety crews to reach accidents on the massive course. Sadly, the track was closed to Formula One after that, but the new track in Nürburg is much more conducive to safety crews and fans alike.

Talladega, 1987
Due to their immense size and tall banking, Daytona and Talladega became synonymous with high speed among NASCAR fans. Unfortunately, even though the cars were very heavy, NASCAR stock cars were susceptible to taking flight if something went wrong at these tracks. As such, when Bobby Allison's car blew a tire, it took off directly towards the grandstands. Thankfully, the track's catch fence managed to hold the car inside the track and prevent a catastrophe that could have killed NASCAR. Still, NASCAR's officials decided that the cars needed to be slowed. As such, they placed restrictor plates on the car's air intakes to reduce horsepower at Daytona and Talladega. Instead of killing the racing, the plates actually evened up the racing and has produced some of the most exciting events in NASCAR.

Imola, 1994
Probably the blackest weekend in Formula One history ended with the reprofiling of one of Formula One's favorite tracks. The first incident involved Rubens Barrichello, whose car was launched off a curb into a tire barrier, knocking Barrichello unconscious. The second incident took the life of Roland Ratzenberger, who took the fast Villneuve turn incorrectly and slammed into the outside wall. The third incident took the life of one of Formula One's most popular driver's ever, Ayrton Senna, whose car broke in the ultra-quick Tamburello corner and speared the outside wall hard. Because of Barichello's accident, the curbs were lowered all around the Imola track and at tracks around the world. The deaths of Ratzenberger and Senna led to the installation of chicanes and sand traps at those two turns to slow the cars and protect them from impacts.

Indianapolis, The '90s
As cars began averaging 230 miles per hour around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the severity of accidents went up by leaps and bounds. If you hit the wall at Indianapolis, there was always the possibility of severe injury. In 1992, Jovy Marcelo was killed in practice, Nelson Piquet was seriously injured in practice, and Jeff Andretti was seriously injured during the race itself. In 1995, Stan Fox's car was torn in half when it nosed into the wall on the first lap and Fox went into a Coma. In 1996, Polesitter Scott Brayton was killed when his car hit the wall during practice. Eventually, Speedway management decided enough was enough, and they began working with the University of Nebraska on one of the greatest safety innovations in all of racing, the SAFER Barrier. Installed at Indianapolis before the 2000 race and at nearly every major oval track in the world since then, the SAFER Barrier has saved countless injuries, and probably more than a few lives.

Fontana, 1999
Greg Moore was a popular driver in the CART Championship Series and was probably a favorite to follow fellow Canadian Jacques Villneuve to Formula One. Unfortunately, after losing control of his car coming off of Turn 2 at California Speedway, his car sped towards the inside of the track and hit the angled wall at one of the safety truck entrances. The car exploded into pieces on impact and Moore was fatally injured. Two things came of this: first, the walls at the safety truck entrances were reprofiled to minimize the likelihood of such an impact; second, the inside of the first half of the back straightaway was paved with asphalt because a spinning car would lose more speed on asphalt than on grass.

Daytona, 2001
Probably the darkest day in NASCAR led to yet another of the greatest safety innovations in all of racing. On the last lap of the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt moved up the track and made contact with Sterling Marlin's car, spinning Earnhardt head-first into the concrete outside wall. On impact, Earnhardt's head apparently snapped forward and he may have hit his head on the steering wheel. Because whiplash may have caused Earnhardt's death, NASCAR (and many other racing series) mandated the use of the Head And Neck Safety (HANS) Device. The device was a simple shoulder brace that, in the event of an impact, kept the driver's head from moving forward beyond a certain angle, but it has virtually eliminated the broken neck or basal skull fracture as a cause of death in a racing accident. Also, the SAFER Barrier became a mainstay at every track on the NASCAR circuit to lessen the G-forces on impact with a wall.

Well, there you are. Safety in racing, unfortunately, is a product of injury and fatality. We generally don't see the problems with safety until they make themselves painfully obvious. Hopefully, the strides we've made will help minimize the risks these drivers will face as we head into the sport's future.

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