Elliott Sadler's wreck reveals a lot
CONCORD, N.C. -- Sam Johns stands next to the remains of Elliott Sadler's car that almost went head-on into an inside retaining wall on Sunday at Pocono Raceway. The director of operations at Richard Petty Motorsports isn't wearing rubber gloves and his pockets contain no swab boxes, but make no mistake, this is a CSI-type investigation.
CSI Concord, we'll call it.
In this case, the investigation isn't to determine how someone was killed, but how a life was saved -- or at least how a serious injury was prevented.
Normally, the car would have been torn down and discarded into the junk pile within hours of arriving at the shop on Monday. Because of the severity of the crash -- NASCAR officials told Sadler it was the hardest-recorded in the sport's history -- it may be days, weeks or months before this case is completely closed.
As Johns speaks, Hendrick Motorsports officials are on their way to pick up the carbon fiber seat their company built to perform X-rays to make sure nothing was compromised. Sadler's helmet, seat belts and HANS (Head and Neck restraint) device also are being shipped off for further evaluation.
The same goes for the oil lines and any other parts that are constructed outside these walls.
This is as close to an autopsy as you'll find in auto racing when death isn't involved.
"We've been slow and meticulous on this, taking it apart to make sure areas didn't fail where we don't know just looking at it," Johns said. "The biggest thing we can do after a crash like this is continue to learn and educate ourselves."
Safety education became more a priority than ever after Feb. 18, 2001, the day Dale Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500 with an impact to the right front similar to Sadler's. It's why drivers are required to wear the HANS and six-point seatbelt, why NASCAR developed the new car with the seat further from the door, a higher ceiling in the roll cage and crush zones, and why HMS developed the carbon fiber seat.
It's probably a good reason why nobody in NASCAR's top three series has been killed in a crash since that dark day.
It's why Sadler walked away on Sunday with only a few bumps and bruises -- not even a headache the next day.
People can call this car ugly all they want, but it sure looked beautiful from where Johns was standing.
"There's been times we've complained a lot about the car, but boy it has done its job from a safety standpoint," Johns said.
No doubt. And Sadler has no doubt he would have been seriously injured -- or worse -- in the old car without the latest innovations.
"Ten years ago in an aluminum seat and no HANS and having that same wreck in the old car we'd be talking about something different now," Sadler said. "All the tedious stuff that NASCAR holds teams accountable for, I understand that better after a wreck like this."
Reenacting the incident
Before we get back to the dissection of the car, let's reenact what happened.
Sadler was coming off Turn 1 with Sam Hornish Jr. and Reed Sorenson racing side by side in front of him. He was drafting to catch them when he noticed smoke from an incident that he later discovered began with Jimmie Johnson getting into the back of Kurt Busch.
As Sadler slowed like the cars in front of him, teammate AJ Allmendinger got into his rear bumper. When Allmendinger turned right, Sadler's car shot to the left, slid through the grass and into the retaining wall where the right front took the biggest blow.
Sadler didn't anticipate a hard hit. He figured at worse he'd glance off the rail, get the damage repaired and continue the race.
"All of a sudden it was holy " Sadler recalled.
Replays slowed frame by frame by Johns and NASCAR show Sadler's body lunged forward at least six inches. Sadler doesn't remember this, but knows, were it not for the HANS and six-point harness that allowed his body to move all at once instead of the whiplash effect that led to Earnhardt's death, he might not be here to talk about it.
The six-point harness that was mandated to replace the five-pointer in 2007 gets overlooked a lot because of the HANS, but it played a major role. It kept the pelvis area in place -- the five-pointer allowed the body to slide forward -- and forced Sadler's body to move from the waist down in unison.
That put most of the stress on the upper body that absorbed much of the blow instead of creating a whipping motion that could have created problems. It knocked the breath out of Sadler and the belts broke the skin slightly, but nothing more.
As the car bounced off the wall, spun around and totaled the rear of the car, the engine flew out. The best Johns could figure was that the mounts were broken on impact. There's a large dent near the gas pedal where the engine first lunged, but no major structural damage to the shell that protected Sadler.
The car eventually came to rest with the engine not far away. Sadler was able to climb out on his own, and had enough awareness to lay flat on the ground to stretch his abdomen while trying to catch his breath.
Officials don't have much more to go on in determining exactly what came off the car at what time because there's only one 5- to 10-frame video captured near the point of impact. An aerial shot is usually the most helpful, but there was none.
What officials know is the fuel line inside the car wasn't compromised, that the front end suspension collapsed as it was supposed to and the tethers in place to hold wheels, hood and other parts together did their job.
"To me, the most important thing was the driver cockpit was in one piece," Sadler correctly surmised. "That did its job. The HANS device did its job. The knee knocker in between my legs did its job.
"All that did well."
Back to the autopsy
Tom Gideon was in his car listening to the race on the radio when he heard about the collision. Before the car was returned to the garage on two wreckers, NASCAR's director of safety initiatives was in communication with track officials.
By Monday morning, Gideon was at RPM with three inspectors going piece by piece through the wreckage. Sometimes they bring the car to the Research and Development Center in Concord, but RPM being across the street made it easy.
The initial survey?
"Everything worked pretty good," Gideon said.
For more than an hour Gideon and his crew went over the car trying to determine how each part worked. The tether system for the most part held together, but there were pieces separated from the car that will require further research to see what happened.
"We don't want parts to come off," Gideon said.
Most of the focus was on the shell and everything inside of it. Despite a few wrinkles on the dash and floor, nothing unusual.
"You can see right there where the engine started to get back into the car," said Johns, pointing to the dent near the gas pedal. "But for the most part everything did a real good job."
You can't say enough about how well the carbon fiber seat worked in tandem with the HANS and six-point harness. Keeping the driver stable is the No. 1 priority. It helps prevent basal skull fracture that was ruled the cause of Earnhardt's death.
It's actually quite amazing to see how intact the shell was. Other than the mangled gas pedal and minor movement of the firewall, one would hardly know it had suffered trauma.
We're still studying it. We still have data coming in. We're all the time looking at getting stronger. We never rest. Nobody wants to see anybody get hurt.” -- Tom Gideon, NASCAR director of safety initiatives
Because Sadler is taller than most drivers, having the additional head room in the new car didn't hurt either. What little movement his body made wasn't impacted by contact with the roll cage.
Because all chassis have to be certified at the R&D Center, each should be able to take on the same blow with similar results. With the old car, teams often made tweaks that could change the outcome and make the data collected after such a crash less consistent.
As bad as this looked on TV, it's a valuable test for NASCAR and teams.
"This test apparently worked well," Gideon said.
What most impressed about this process was how open RPM has been with NASCAR and other teams. There was no rushing to cover up areas of the car where the organization may have found an advantage. If a competitor calls with questions, response is quick.
"When we're talking about safety of the drivers, it's not a competition thing now," Johns said. "We all need to protect our drivers. We'll share whatever information we can with a team."
That wasn't always the case before 2001. Live -- or in that case die -- and learn.
This is no crime scene, but it certainly is treated like one for the sake of safety.
"We're still studying it," Gideon said. "We still have data coming in. We're all the time looking at getting stronger. We never rest. Nobody wants to see anybody get hurt."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.