Twenty years ago, NASCAR had no research and development center, the SAFER barrier had not been installed at tracks and drivers raced in seats that look rudimentary compared to today’s cocoons.
That Bubba Wallace walked away from his vicious impact Sunday at Pocono Raceway reinforces how far safety has come in NASCAR since the late 1990s and also how the job of safety is never-ending.
The brakes on Wallace’s car failed as headed toward Turn 1 late in the race. He turned left, went through the grass and came back up the track, slamming into the SAFER barrier on the right side.
“Hardest one of my career,” Wallace told NBCSN after exiting the infield care center. “I was just telling them that there’s no feeling like being helpless in that situation. It scared the hell out of me. I didn’t know if I was going to remember when I hit or not. We’re good. Bit my cheek. Banged my foot off the pedal. I’ll wake up (Monday) and be a little sore. Safety has come a long ways. It’s good to be able to climb out of the car.”
Safety has indeed come a long way.
In 1999, two-time Busch Series champion Randy LaJoie had developed a new seat that supported drivers around their shoulders instead of rib cages. Ray Evernham, then crew chief for Jeff Gordon, had talked to doctors about developing a new protective seat.
In March 1999, Gordon bruised his ribs in a crash at Texas Motor Speedway. Check out the video below of the CBS broadcast for the rare glimpse of a driver’s reactions before safety crews arrived and the pain Gordon was in. Also note how there is little protection from the seat on the right side of Gordon’s head (unlike today’s seats that wrap around a driver’s head to better protect it).
That’s just among the major changes in driver safety. Here are some others:
Back then drivers had a five-point safety belt. Today they use a seven-point safety belt that keeps them more snug in the seat.
Composite seats are now used to better protect drivers.
Cars have had incident data recorders to help NASCAR officials and safety experts analyze crashes and understand the impacts to provide new safety elements.
SAFER barriers are used at every track. Indianapolis Motor Speedway first installed the SAFER barrier in May 2002. By 2006, every oval track that hosted NASCAR Cup races had SAFER barrier sections. In 2015, Bristol Motor Speedway became the first Cup oval to have all of its outside wall protected by the SAFER barrier.
Foam is inside the driver’s door to absorb energy in an impact to help protect the driver.
Head-and-neck restraints are mandatory. Once tried years earlier but without much support from drivers, the HANS was reintroduced to NASCAR in July 2000 when Brett Bodine became the first driver to race with the device, doing so at Pocono. He used it just months after the deaths of Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin that season. NASCAR mandated a head-and-neck restraint for drivers in its top three series in Oct. 2001.
“All the initiatives that have been put in place over the years with safety of the cars, the seats, the SAFER barriers and all the things are really, really paying dividends in situations like that,” Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Monday morning about Wallace not suffering a serious injury in his Pocono crash.
The latest safety initiative for NASCAR is a high-speed camera inside the car pointed at the driver to allow officials to better examine in minute detail what a driver goes through in a crash, particularly a hard impact such as Wallace’s at Pocono.
“One thing that is interesting is we have initiated the use of a high-speed camera to further investigate the big hits so that we can potentially lead to some more safety initiatives,” Miller said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “So this will be the first time we’ve had a big crash with this new potential analysis of the crash. I know the teams are interested in seeing that and seeing if there is any learnings from it.”