Long: As Kyle Busch’s recovery continues, question is how will sport’s safety improve?

3 Comments

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. – He lumbered to the stage at Joe Gibbs Racing, but what looked slow and measured seemed like a sprint to his wife.

Nearly two months after striking a concrete wall at Daytona International Speedway – breaking his right leg and left foot – Kyle Busch is walking.

That Busch is here is a credit to NASCAR’s safety initiatives.

That Busch isn’t racing is a sign of how far the sport has to go with safety.

For many, Wednesday was the first chance to see and hear Busch since that awful Xfinity Series crash when his car slammed into an inside wall not covered by a SAFER barrier (it wasn’t until the next day that tire packs were placed there). Busch revealed that his impact recorded 90 Gs and was the hardest hit of his career.

His accident came a year after Kevin Harvick struck an inside wall not protected by an energy-absorbing barrier at Daytona. Harvick questioned how a track spending $400 million to upgrade its stands couldn’t afford to add more protective barriers. NASCAR and the track, abiding by the opinion of the sport’s safety experts, didn’t make any changes.

As Busch pulled off pit lane during February’s Xfinity race he recalls looking to his left and seeing the concrete wall on the inside of the corner.

“If somebody hits that, that’s really going to hurt,’’ Busch said he thought to himself.

“And then I go and find it.’’

Joie Chitwood, president of Daytona International Speedway, vowed hours after Busch’s crash to “install SAFER barrier on every inch at this property.’’

The work won’t be complete when the series returns in July but should be by next year’s Daytona 500. That’s great for all the competitors. Of course, it doesn’t help Busch now.

There’s no arguing how far safety has come since Dale Earnhardt’s fatal accident in the 2001 Daytona 500. No driver in any of NASCAR’s top three national series has died in competition since.

Still, the notion that more isn’t done to protect drivers is perplexing. A week after Busch’s crash, Jeff Gordon hit a concrete wall at Atlanta Motor Speedway, proving there are vulnerabilities throughout the circuit.

Tracks are responding. Some have added tire barriers and will add more energy-absorbing barriers later this year. Bristol Motor Speedway installed more SAFER barriers in time for this weekend’s races.

It takes time to build the barriers for each track and install them, so a quick turnaround is unreasonable.

Yet, Busch’s accident begs the question why this wasn’t done before his accident. Especially at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway where speeds are high and cars run bunched together.

Busch took responsibility for his crash. He said he was trying to make a move to get toward the front to win that race. Bold moves often are required in such tight racing. That leads to the chance for more accidents.

If the drivers are the sport’s most valuable commodity, shouldn’t everything be done to protect them and allow them to make bold moves that thrill fans?

In this case it wasn’t. The result was that Busch spent time in two hospitals and had two surgeries (with a surgery scheduled for December on his foot to remove a plate and screws).

He couldn’t make it up the stairs for weeks to sleep in his own bed so he slept in a hospital bed in the living room of his home. Where he once couldn’t move his toes, he can. And his ankle. He couldn’t move his right knee for about a week after surgery to install a titanium rod in his leg. The mobility has returned.

Busch, who wears a protective boot on his left foot, works toward his return to racing, although no date has been set.

As Busch goes through his rehab, the question is how will the sport change from this experience?