As NASCAR marks the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s death this weekend, many know the legend’s legacy not just about his incredible success on track, it's also about making the sport safer.
The shocking loss of NASCAR’s biggest star in the 2001 Daytona 500 began a rash of safety changes in the stock car series, from the adoption of the Head and Neck Support (HANS) device and soft walls to the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow four years ago.
It was a huge move for NASCAR, which had resisted change for years. Many in the sport simple felt the bulkiness of their cars would save them in a heavy crash, and even continued to encourage a gladiator mentality after two promising NASCAR drivers died a year before Earnhardt’s accident a decade ago.
These Formula One drivers survived horrific crashes and lived to drive again, reports Jeff Pappone
The first was Adam Petty, 19, the grandson of NASCAR legend Richard Petty, who suffered a basal skull fracture in a head-on crash into the wall in a Busch Series (now Nationwide) practice at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. A few months later, Kenny Irwin Jr. was killed on the same track when his car hit the wall at almost the same spot as Petty. Irwin was 1998 NASCAR Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) Rookie of the Year and, looked to be a star on the rise. He also died of a basal skull fracture.
Unfortunately, NASCAR did not heed the warnings it received in Loudon and only mandated HANS devices for its drivers after Earnhardt died of the same injury in Daytona a year later. That said, about half the NASCAR field was wearing a HANS device in the Daytona 500 when Earnhardt hit the wall.
But the slow response from NASCAR isn’t without precedent in motorsport. Fire-retardant driving suits and self-sealing fuel cells were adopted more than 40 years ago in the two top North American Series, but only after fiery crashes claimed NASCAR driver Glenn Roberts at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Indianapolis 500 competitors Dave MacDonald and Eddie Sachs in 1964.
Many people also forget that three-time world champion Jackie Stewart was mocked for his push to increase safety measures in Formula One four decades ago.
In addition, NASCAR is not alone in having tragedy force action. F1 got a huge wake-up call in an awful weekend at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola.
A day after rookie Roland Ratzenberger died when his car went headlong into a concrete wall at about 300 kilometres per hour, the sport lost one of its greatest ever, Ayrton Senna. Arguably the most talented driver to sit in an F1 car, Senna was killed when his Williams also hit a concrete wall after leaving the track at the fast Tamburello Corner.
The death of its biggest star saw F1 embark on a huge safety push, with the cars and circuits being completely overhauled to lessen the risk of serious injury and death. It worked, and F1 has not had a driver perish in a race since Senna died in Imola. But even though it increased safety in the wake of Senna’s death, F1 only mandated the HANS device in 2003. While a HANS would not have saved Senna, (who died as a result of debris hitting his head and suspension parts piercing his helmet) it may have helped Ratzenberger survive. He died of a basal skull fracture the HANS is meant to prevent.
In the old Championship Auto Racing Teams (later Champ Car, which is now merged with IndyCar), it was the death of Canadian Greg Moore in the 1999 season finale that saw the series move quickly to get the HANS device on its drivers and begin looking into energy-absorbing walls at oval races. Moore’s accident came six weeks after rookie Gonzalo Rodriguez died in his car after suffering a basal skull fracture in a crash at California’s Laguna Seca track. The series was also sold on the HANS after a computer simulation based on the data from Rodriguez’s car’s recorder showed the device would have saved life.
All that’s ancient history today, since it’s been decade without a death in F1, IndyCar or NASCAR after all the series made huge strides in the past 15 years to make sure their drivers get the best safety equipment available.
But the biggest lesson here is not to become complacent. In 1994, F1 learned that lesson after going 12 years without a death following the loss of Canadian superstar Gilles Villeneuve in a violent crash in qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix and Riccardo Paletti, who perished in a start line accident in Montreal a month later.
Fitzpatrick is Canada's only NASCAR snowbird
NASCAR Canadian Tire Series driver J.R. Fitzpatrick will fly the Maple Leaf at Florida’s Daytona International Speedway this weekend as he begins his 2011 race campaign with a ride in the Nationwide Series season opener.
Fitzpatrick makes his eighth career Nationwide start in Saturday’s DRIVE4COPD 300 where he’ll be looking to add another good result to his two top-10s last season driving for JR Motorsport.
In 2006, 22-year-old from Cambridge, Ont., became the youngest driver to win the CASCAR Series (now NASCAR Canadian Tires Series) championship at the age of 18. He finished second overall in the NCTS last season.
These Formula One drivers survived horrific crashes and lived to drive again, reports Jeff PapponeReport Typo/Error
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