NASCAR has come a long way in the 16 years since it lost the legendary Dale Earnhardt to a crash at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
New cars, new safety requirements and an emphasis on building the platform to be as safe as possible for the drivers, teams and fans has been NASCAR’s aim, and by all accounts the sanctioning body has gotten amazingly close to the bull’s-eye.
That does not mean the bar has been surpassed, by any means.
Simply put, racing of any type is inherently dangerous. When one takes a car weighing nearly two tons and capable of racing at speeds better than 200 mph, physics alone can cause injury to anyone within a couple hundred feet of the racing surface.
A huge focus of late has been cars careening into the fence, and well it should be as the spectators are there to watch, pay the bills and enjoy the race. Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon have both taken airborne trips into the catch fence at Daytona Int’l Speedway in recent years and NASCAR has responded with changes designed to keep the cars on the ground and out of the laps of the paying customers.
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In addition to tinkering with restrictor-plate sizes designed to slow the cars, NASCAR put a stiffer emphasis on the flaps that keep the cars right-side up, as well as the structure of the chassis, particularly in the foot-box area. The catch fence at Daytona did its job after being redesigned and improved following Larson’s 2013 crash in the season-opening NASCAR XFINITY Series race. That spectacular crash tore out a significant amount of fencing and sheared off the front of the car before sending it back onto the racing surface.
Despite a metric ton of data generated by recorders inside the cars, NASCAR still has a problem with its drivers sustaining concussions. By far the most visible of those has been Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport’s 14-time most popular driver in the sport. Earnhardt missed the final 18 races of the 2016 season due to symptoms related to a concussion and is in his final season as a full-time NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series competitor.
Updated headrests and seat padding have helped, as have constant experimentation with the seats, belts and other features inside the driver compartment. Concussions will happen wherever there is sufficient force and each accident delivers different forces to drivers, which is something the sanctioning body cannot control.
Even when drivers are well protected, injuries still happen. Aric Almirola is proof of that. Earlier this season at Kansas Speedway, Almirola suffered back injuries in a type of crash that is rarely seen these days.
Hitting oil on the track resulted in Almirola’s Ford ramming into the rear of Joey Logano’s machine and the impact sent the rear end of Almirola’s car high into the air. It slammed down on the left-rear jack post, transmitting all the forces of impact through the body and into the driver’s back. The result was a compression fracture on his T5 vertebrae.
“If you look at the impact, and I’ve reviewed some of the data with NASCAR, if you look at the impact and you look at the G-load that I went through during that wreck, I’m pretty lucky to just have a compression fracture to my T5 vertebra,” Almirola told motorsport.com recently. “So I think everything that NASCAR is doing and will continue to do to make the cars safer is really great.”