Everyone knows about the SAFER barrier and the HANS device, safety innovations that NASCAR drivers depend on when racing around the circuit at speeds approaching 200 mph. But one important safety ingredient was born, not invented, and that person is the pace car driver.
Brett Bodine, who was a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup series driver for 15 consecutive seasons from 1988 to 2003, got into a new ride in 2004. That was the year he joined the sport's sanctioning body as director of cost research -- and pace car driver for the Sprint Cup series.
While most fans understand that the pace car driver "sets the pace" for pit road speed and drivers following behind under yellow flag conditions, Bodine said his most important job on the racetrack is monitoring track conditions.
"It's our call from the pace car if the track is ready to go back racing after an on-track incident," Bodine said. "So having years of experience driving a race car, I know what's acceptable and what's not when it comes time to do cleanup. If we have oil down or debris or whatever it might be, it's my call and I relay that information to the tower."
Bodine maintains constant radio contact throughout every event with David Hoots, NASCAR's managing event director and the voice of race control. Buster Auton, who is a former pace car driver, rides with Bodine and maintains radio contact with NASCAR series director John Darby.
"We have two means of communication to the tower, and that way, we can make sure that our information gets there accurately," Bodine said. "We help the tower with dispatching of vehicles through a scene of debris and try to determine what equipment needs [to be] dispatched."
Debris. The word makes more cynical NASCAR fans cringe, with some going so far as to claim that NASCAR has at times dreamed up "imaginary debris" so as to bring out the yellow flag to benefit "name-the-driver-of-the-week."
Maybe those people could take a ride with Bodine.
"I'd like to take them around a racetrack at speed one time and have them get a flat tire," he said. "A flat tire ended my career. A piece of debris came off of a car in a practice session, blew a right front tire, and I went straight into the wall at Michigan at close to 190 mph.
"We don't take chances with debris. We have a guy in that tower over there, and for him to look at something over here in this corner, he can't be sure exactly what it is. If he sees something, he needs to tell us so we can get it off the racetrack. So if people say 'imaginary,' I just wish I could take them for a ride one time and have a flat. They would understand completely."
Despite Bodine's passion for safety, he is a racer first, which is why it was hard for him to make the transition from competitor to official.
"Not having ever been an alcoholic, I compare it to having a reformed alcoholic work in a liquor store," Bodine joked. "It was very difficult. It's getting easier, and time has a way to do that. But it was tough."
And what about when Mother Nature steps in and rains on the racetrack?
"It's always difficult when it's time to go racing if it's sprinkling and we have to dry it," Bodine said. "But it's really not difficult, because I've learned since I've come to work for NASCAR that they're always going to err on the safer side, so there's your buffer, so to speak. I drove these things for a long time and I know what's too much, too wet, and I know what's acceptable and when it's ready to go."
Bodine recalled the special relationship he had with Elmo Langley, pace car driver from 1989 until his death in November 1996.
"As drivers, we all relied on Elmo for his guidance," Bodine said. "When he was in the garage area, that was when we had second-round qualifying, and if you were involved in the process of that, we all went to Elmo. He had this uncanny knack of being able to read weather and how that related to speed on the racetrack and whether or not you should run second-round. He had this unbelievable ability to predict what speed it was going to take to make the race and what speed the track was going to lose based on weather. So we all went to him."
Bodine is enjoying his turn at the head of the field, and if he has his way, the job of NASCAR pace car driver won't be vacant anytime soon.
"I'd like to think that because of my years of experience as a driver that the rest of my buddies who drive these race cars have confidence in what I say," Bodine said. "And I feel that it's that way. We have a good working relationship.
"I plan on being here a long time," he added. "This is my life. I can't ever picture staying home for a Cup race."