As the sanctioning body of the long-running Winston Cup series, NASCAR has a history of making changes to increase the safety of its drivers when the push for such modifications becomes apparent. For example, when reigning champion Joe Weatherly's head smacked a concrete wall at Daytona in 1964, the net on the driver's side window was put into place. When the technology to improve a car's safety arrives, it is approved. When the technology to improve a car's safety is needed, but not in existence, it is found.
Unfortunately, this is not the case for the tracks.
The Intimidator's tragic end was the third death in the past year on the Winston Cup circuit alone. When you consider that there are fewer than 60 regulars on tour, the mortality rate for this sport's top tier is astounding. And what do all three fatalities have in common? They were all the result of a sudden collision with a virtually indestructible source, concrete.
While smaller and slower local race tracks continue to use steel guard rails to keep cars on the track, larger and faster venues have gone almost exclusively to what has become a driver's greatest threat. The concrete that encloses everything from 2.5-mile superspeedways to half-mile short tracks was put into place because it absorbs only about 10 percent of the force of a crash, which makes the substance very durable. That's great for a greedy track owner who never has to pay to fix something that cannot be broken but not so good for the driver whose car and body must deal with the other 90 percent of the force of the wreck.
At road courses in Sonoma, Calif., and Watkins Glen, N.Y., the majority of walls are buffered by much softer tires. When a car runs off course the rubber tires absorb a greater percentage of the blow and the car usually bounces off with less damage to the car, and more importantly, its occupant.
This track design is nothing new. In fact, advances in track safety have been in development for years. Tests with metal guard rails buffered by reinforced Styrofoam barriers show that a driver will absorb only about 20 percent of the force of a wreck when they are in place instead of concrete. Shouldn't it be the drivers who get the lighter end of the load instead of the wall? Styrofoam blocks are expensive and would have to be replaced in the middle of a race if they were destroyed in an accident. Plus, they would have to be thicker than the ten-foot concrete fences currently in place. This would mean cutting the first few rows of seats. It would appear to be a small price to pay for a human life, but some prefer it this way.
Smith's New Hampshire track saw the deaths of both Petty and Irwin this summer. The changes in track configuration that have taken place since then: none. Smith's Texas track has been deemed unsafe by numerous drivers because of its thin turns, high bankings, and even higher speeds.
This summer one driver speculated that in twenty years the NASCAR community might look back and be amazed that members actually risked their lives on tracks surrounded by concrete. If the death of the sport's greatest ambassador is not enough of an impetus for change, that particular driver might be amazed that in 20 years men like himself are still risking their lives on tracks surrounded by a material meant for driveways, not death markers.