Innovation and inspiration have made NASCAR a safer sport throughout the years. There is no denying that some of the devices the sport's engineers have come up with to keep drivers and spectators safer have real ingenuity behind them. Unfortunately, they have a string of real and tragic events behind them as well, usually involving some of the sport's most glorified names.
The racing in NASCAR's infancy seems crude and barbaric by today's standards. The drivers were beating and banging on each other in vehicles that would catch on fire faster than you can say Ralph Nader. One of the biggest stars of those early years was Glenn "Fireball" Roberts, a nickname born of his fastball, not his racing exploits.
In the World 600 at Charlotte in 1964, Roberts crashed and his car flipped upside down. The car burst into flames and Roberts suffered second- and third-degree burns on 80 percent of his body before he could escape. He died less than two months later, but his safety legacy lives on in a big way. Roberts' horrible crash helped spearhead research into fire-retardant uniforms and fuel cells to prevent spillage during a wreck.
But while all drivers accepted the heavier uniform out of necessity, many still resisted fire retardant gloves, saying they needed the feel of the steering wheel during a race. Then a driver named Bobby Wawak got his picture in the Daytona newspaper after a wreck in the 1977 Daytona 500. Wawak suffered severe burns on his hands, and the picture showed what looked like tattered remains of his gloves. Only he wasn't wearing any gloves. After that picture hit the newsstand, every driver wore gloves without complaint about losing any feel of the steering wheel.
Ten years later NASCAR had one of its closest calls ever. Bobby Allison blew a tire going into the trioval at Talladega and flew into the catch fence during the 1987 Winston 500. His car, while never entering the grandstands, certainly provided those seated in them an up close view of his Buick LeSabre. Spectators were injured, but thankfully there were no fatalities. Nonetheless, every race at Daytona and Talladega since has featured restrictor plates, which keep the speeds down by restricting air flow to the engines.
Spectacular end-over-end crashes in the mid-1980s by Richard Petty and Ricky Rudd [among others] led to roof flaps, which affected the air flow that was turning the cars over at high speeds. Again, thankfully, drivers such as Petty gave up their lunches but not their lives in these horrifying accidents.
Right after the turn of the century, this was tragically not the case.
Adam Petty, the first fourth-generation driver in NASCAR history, lost his life when his throttle stuck and he hit the wall at New Hampshire on May 12, 2000. His death prompted the installation of kill switches that allowed drivers to avoid the loss of control of the car's power in such situations.
The following year, the most famous accident in NASCAR history took the life of perhaps its biggest star. Dale Earnhardt collided with the wall in Turn Four of the 2001 Daytona 500, and the G-forces caused massive head injuries that took his life. The same type of injury had taken the lives of drivers Kenny Irwin, Tony Roper and John Nemechek before NASCAR mandated the use of the Head And Neck Safety [HANS] device, decreasing significantly the G-forces a driver might sustain during a crash.
Also, SAFER barriers have sprung up around the circuit, lessening the impact even more.
And the Car of Tomorrow instituted full time by NASCAR this year has done even more, inserting foam between the sheetmetal and the roll cage and moving the driver's seat closer to the center of the car.
Danger can never be totally removed from the racing, and some might argue it shouldn't be. There is no denying its impact on the safety of the sport, though. The sight of fan favorites flipping end over end has, in a perverse way, made it safer for everyone else to do so.