NASCAR’s safety advances protect drivers but work is never-ending

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CHARLOTTE – A.J. Allmendinger saw Austin Dillon’s car fly overhead last July at Daytona International Speedway and feared it would be the last thing he would ever see.

“That was the first time in my life, truly, I thought I might die right here,’’ Allmendinger told NBC Sports recently. “Because just in that moment I see him take off, all I could think about is if he hits this fence and just comes straight down, it’s coming through my windshield because I was just lined up perfect with it.’’

Denny Hamlin, who finished third in that rain-delayed race, got turned after crossing the start/finish line, triggering the chaos. His spinning car hit Dillon’s car, which launched over the field and rolled over before slamming into the catch fence. The impact  destroyed about 60 feet of fencing as the field passed by.

That Dillon wasn’t hurt showed how far safety has come since Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash 15 years ago on the last lap of the Daytona 500. Earnhardt’s incident remains the last fatality in the Sprint Cup Series.

Greg Biffle said that the safety innovations that followed Earnhardt’s crash — HANS device for drivers, SAFER barrier over concrete walls and improved car construction — have “saved multiple lives.’’

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5MrquaBBXQ

Michael McDowell knows. Seven years after Earnhardt’s crash, McDowell’s car slammed head-first into a SAFER barrier and barrel-rolled during a qualifying run at Texas Motor Speedway. He walked away from the destroyed car.

“Five years prior to that, you would not have walked away from an accident like that, and 10 years prior to that, there is no way you could,’’ McDowell told NBC Sports. “I’m very thankful for what NASCAR has done and the manufacturers, too.’’

NASCAR mandated head-and-neck restraints for drivers in Oct. 2001, following Earnhardt’s death that season and the deaths of Kenny Irwin, Adam Petty and Tony Roper in 2000. All were from similar basilar skull fractures.

“I remember everybody complaining about having to wear a HANS device and it’s 15 years later and I don’t think anyone would get in a car without one on now,’’ former Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray told NBC Sports. “It’s become kind of a comfort factor, like getting in your car and putting your seat belts on and then moving your head forward until you feel the HANS catch and kind of knowing that there is some kind of security that goes with that.’’

After Earnhardt’s accident, headrests were extended and added inside the car. More drivers began to use carbon fiber seats that were more like a cocoon. Additional safety belts have been added.

On the track, the energy-absorbing SAFER barrier was first installed in May 2002 in the corners at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The barrier was placed over concrete walls in the corners at Richmond International Raceway in time for the Sept. 2003 races there but came too late for Jerry Nadeau. He suffered a head injury in May 2003 there in a crash during practice. He never raced in NASCAR again.

While tracks have added SAFER barrier, drivers have found unprotected walls and been injured. Denny Hamlin suffered a compression fracture in his back after crashing into a concrete wall on the inside of Turn 4 at Auto Club Speedway in 2013. Last year, Kyle Busch missed about three months of the season after his car careened into a concrete wall inside Turn 1 at Daytona International Speedway and he suffered a fractured left foot and broken right leg.

Joie Chitwood, president of Daytona International Speedway, vowed after that crash that the track would be ringed with energy-absorbing barriers.

“This is not going to happen again,” he said that night. “We’re going to fix this and it starts right now.”

The track has completed that task. All outside and inside walls, with the exception of pit lane, have energy-absorbing barriers.

After the Daytona 500, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway, which has added 4,742 linear feet of SAFER to the inside walls in each corner and inside and outside walls of the backstretch. Las Vegas Motor Speedway also has added more SAFER barriers in time for its race next month.

“The difference in hitting a wall with a SAFER barrier versus hitting a wall without one is massive,’’ McMurray said. “And for the new guys that came along and have never raced without SAFER barriers in places like Daytona or Dover, some of the tracks that you can hit really hard at, it still hurts but it’s a huge difference from what we used to have.’’

Challenges persist, though.

“The threshold has been raised so high,’’ six-time champion Jimmie Johnson told NBC Sports. “Now we’re at a point where just, sort of, freak things happen and when we didn’t think about this or this opening or whatever it might be.’’

Johnson said the sport is “thinking forward and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a very low percentage chance for this to happen but, let’s cover that base.’ It’s feels good to race in an era where we’re looking at the low percentage areas that need to be fixed up.’’

Such areas are discussed, among other topics, in the driver council’s meetings with NASCAR. The council formed last season and includes a cross-section of Cup drivers. It’s a way for drivers and NASCAR to share ideas, concerns and discuss various issues in a more formal setting.

“I know just through the driver council meetings that we have had, NASCAR has really shown us initiatives that they have had to put in more SAFER barriers at racetracks even where they don’t think that they are needed, so they are willing to invest in our safety and obviously as drivers that’s something we take comfort in,’’ Hamlin told NBC Sports.

Allmendinger’s car wasn’t struck by Dillon’s in that ferocious crash last July. While Dillon walked away from his mangled car, Allmendinger said more work remains.

“I know we still have room to improve on a lot of these racetracks,’’ Allmendinger said, “but you take a 3,200-pound car that’s going 200 miles per hour and send it in to a fence, and it keeps the car and most of the race car in the racetrack, it’s pretty amazing to think about.’’

Even so, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won’t stop thinking about what more can be done to make drivers safer.

“When I look at our cars today, I think what is not finished,’’ he told NBC Sports. “What about our headrests do we not know? We look at it and go, ‘Man it looks really good, this is way more innovation and we know more.’

“But 20 years from now, we are going to look back and go, ‘Man that was crazy we had the headrests like that.’ So I’m looking at it going what is wrong with it right now, what is wrong with what we have? I’m still out there racing and wrecking and hitting stuff, and I want to go make sure that ‘Man is it done or we are not done.’ ’’