Commentary

Safety the biggest gain with new car

Updated: March 26, 2009, 11:30 AM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

There has been something missing from NASCAR throughout all our groaning and grumbling as the Car of Tomorrow became the Car of Today and finally just the car.

There has been no more death.

Nor even serious injury.

The car is ugly, clumsy, maddening to balance, a straitjacket for innovation … and therefore much maligned by drivers, crew chiefs, columnists like me and fans in legions.

[+] EnlargeJeff Gordon
AP Photo/Isaac BrekkenJeff Gordon escaped serious harm after crashing hard at Las Vegas in 2008, thanks in large part to the safety improvements in the new car.

But it is safe.

In the two most violent crashes it has taken, both last year, the drivers, Jeff Gordon at Las Vegas and Michael McDowell at Texas, walked away to be "seen and released" at the tracks' care centers. Then they went on racing.

And so maybe it is time to give the ugly-duckling COT its due, and acknowledge that the tradeoff -- nimbleness for safety -- has been more than fair.

There are those who believe NASCAR is being sapped of its primal appeal because it isn't dangerous enough anymore. I get that occasionally in e-mails from readers, and hear it from old-line colleagues in the media.

That could be. There is a certain charisma to high risk takers. When an ordinary man puts his life on the line in competition, he becomes extraordinary.

During the decades when death was a real possibility in NASCAR and the other major forms of motor racing, I couldn't believe what the critics claimed, that "people come to see people get killed." If blood mongers existed, their numbers were small.

What I did believe was that a lot of people came to see drivers take the risks of serious injury and death, and narrowly avoid them. In the close calls lies the appeal.

Maybe that was the initial appeal to me, too. Maybe there was a little more electricity running through my fingertips as I typed out stories about the racers because I knew -- and they knew -- the possibilities.

Then, time after time, year after year, the possibilities became the awful realities. And I learned that the price to be paid for the electric charisma of risk-taking is too awful, too permanent, too dispiriting.

We all know the exhilaration of the sight of a driver climbing out of terrible wreckage and throwing his arms in the air, signaling he's OK, to the elated roar of the crowd.

Disaster has been avoided. What a show!

But if you've ever been there when he hasn't climbed out, then you know the pall upon a racetrack is too heavy and surreal, amid all the silence save the disoriented whimpers of wives and girlfriends and fathers -- too much in shock to weep profusely yet -- so that it seems like the very barometric pressure of the air has increased five-fold.

[+] EnlargeEarnhardt Memorial
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioAfter the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001, the NASCAR community ramped up its efforts to make racing safer.

Pardon me, but I've written too many driver obituaries for one lifetime.

I'd already written waaaaay too many by the night of Feb. 18, 2001, when, on emotional autopilot, with no notes, only stream of consciousness, I wrote out remembrance of Dale Earnhardt.

But that time, in the weeks and months that followed, there was more to say than just how sad the loss of Earnhardt was. Something could be done.

Earnhardt was the fourth fatality in a nine-month period in NASCAR's top three series, all of the same injury -- basilar skull fracture -- and all with the same cause -- violent whipping of the head in crashes.

Adam Petty had been the first of that group to die, at age 19, on the Friday before Mother's Day, 2000. He alone made too many obits for me.

To have to talk with his parents, Kyle and Pattie, and his grandfather, Richard, and to see Bobby and Judy Allison -- their own family devastated by death and injury -- try to help console the Pettys … just to report all that was unbearable.

Then came Kenny Irwin Jr. that summer, and Tony Roper that fall. And so, after Earnhardt died, I went from advocate of, to crusader for, the HANS device, soft walls, stronger seats and cars with energy-dissipating materials built in.

I'd had enough of the reality of the sport so romanticized over the years because of the danger.

Once I'd written two obituaries in one column, Tiny Lund in NASCAR and Mark Donohue in Formula One, in 1975.

I had done the overnight death watches at Daytona, beginning with an unknown driver, a nice guy named Don Williams from the north Florida dirt tracks. Williams would lie in a coma for more than a decade, 1979-1989.

I had watched two little girls grow up on welfare, to become lovely, highly educated young women, while their father, Rick Baldwin of Corpus Christi, Texas, broke Williams' record for lying comatose, 1986-1997, from a NASCAR crash.

Most of all, to this day, I am haunted by the death of a kid I never knew, named Ricky Knotts, who was just 20 when he was killed in a qualifying race at Daytona in 1980. He came out of nowhere, Paw Paw, Mich., to race, seeking to become somebody, and he died unknown and is still hardly remembered. That's what is still so sad.

I'd already written waaaaay too many [obits] by the night of Feb. 18, 2001, when, on emotional autopilot, with no notes, only stream of consciousness, I wrote out remembrance of Dale Earnhardt. But that time, in the weeks and months that followed, there was more to say than just how sad the loss of Earnhardt was. Something could be done.

I had traveled to Europe to report on the aftermath of the death of the Formula One maestro Ayrton Senna. And I had heard Michael Schumacher's voice break, and seen his eyes well, as he spoke of it at the next race, in Monaco.

I won't list every obit written here. These are just some of the low points.

Just as the death of the biggest name and the top talent, Senna, had initiated a safety revolution in F1, so the death of Earnhardt, NASCAR's biggest star ever, got NASCAR moving toward good science like never before.

The HANS was mandated, the soft walls were developed as the SAFER barrier, seats went from flimsy aluminum to cocoon-like carbon-fiber survival cells … and the Car of Tomorrow was developed, with its energy-dissipating foam in the roll cages, the driver moved more toward the center of the car, the reconfiguration of the cages for better resistance to side impact.

Some owners and engineers argue the same safety standards could have been reached with modifications to the old car. Maybe. Maybe not.

Just as F1 hasn't had a death since Senna in 1994, NASCAR hasn't had a fatality in any of its national series since Earnhardt. A lot of that has been due to the HANS and the seats and the soft wall.

But with the COT, the nature of "driving hurt" has changed radically. Now it's Jimmie Johnson with a finger he cut with a pocket knife while trying to alter his uniform. Or Greg Biffle with sore ribs suffered in a boating accident. Or Martin Truex Jr. passing a kidney stone just in time to race.

Before, it was Earnhardt or Bill Elliott driving with a broken leg, or Davey Allison with his arm in a cast, or Richard Petty with a broken neck -- driving with common injuries suffered in races, just to keep from missing out on the precious Cup points in what was the most cruel system I have ever seen.

Like you, and the drivers, and the crewmen, I get annoyed with the COT on an almost daily basis.

And then I remember the alternatives.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.