Tragedy sets new policies

Auto racing provides its competitors an “addiction like no other in the world,” said former NASCAR racer Larry Frank. The sport is built on how fast a driver can go around a corner or in a straight line. Each year, drivers push the pedal to the limits of safety, but tragedy prevails in some instances.

It has take the death of auto racing’s icons to provide new modern-day safety measures to help protect drivers. In 2001, NASCAR lost “The Intimidator” Dale Earnhardt Sr., due to a crash at Daytona. Earnhardt was killed by blunt force trauma to his head. NASCAR instituted new head restraining devices for drivers, driver-seat head bolsters and SAFER barriers were designed to absorb the impact of a race car.

Officials implemented a rule prohibiting drivers from exiting their cars after on-track incidents unless “extenuating circumstances exist,” NASCAR vice president Robin Pemberton announced last week..

The new rule states that if cars involved in an on-track incident are unable to make forward progress, drivers must shut off electrical power, lower the window net and then wait, without removing any personal safety equipment, until safety personnel or a NASCAR official arrives on the scene.

The rule states that, “at no time should a driver or crew member approach any portion of the racing surface or apron” or “approach another moving vehicle.”

Extenuating circumstances include “fire, smoke in cockpit, etc.”

The rules change comes in the wake of an incident in which Sprint Cup driver Tony Stewart’s car struck and killed driver Kevin Ward Jr. during a dirt track race in upstate New York.

After Stewart clipped Ward’s car, sending it spinning, Ward got out of the car during the caution period, walked down the track and was hit by Stewart’s car. The rules change “is on the heels of that,” Pemberton said.

When National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) stars Eric Medlen and Scott Kalitta were killed in tragic crashes, officials mandated new safety designs for Top Fuel Funny Cars.

John Force Racing and Ford Racing started “The Eric Medlen Project” in 2007 to aid in safety innovations being taken by the NHRA.

The group designed new chassis modifications for cars and installation of the Blue Box, a crash data recorder, being used by all nitro cars. Kalitta’s accident involved a cockpit fire due to overload on the engine. Mere days after his incident, the NHRA reduced the length of Top Fuel and Funny Car races from the traditional quarter-mile to 1,000 feet, a reduction of 320 feet.

These new safety measures have come from tragic means on the track. NASCAR president Mike Helton and 15-time NHRA champion John Force stated at an auto racing conference earlier this year, “safety is a continuing moving process. As speeds increase so must the innovation of safety.”

Hopefully tragedy will not force any more innovations.

Contact Eddie Thomas at ethomas@newsandsentinel.com