EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part one in a two-part series of columns by R.J. Valentine about race track safety. Part two will be published on Monday.
In mid-2016, I wrote an article explaining why I’m so driven to make race tracks safer. For 11 paragraphs, I stood on my soapbox expounding the many reasons antiquated track barricades represent an unnecessary and extreme danger to drivers. I vainly hoped this, along with our many other efforts to further the cause, would help inspire change.
Yet, here I am, more than a year later and, not only has progress been minimal, but at least 16 more drivers have died as a result of contact with concrete walls, Armco guardrails and other antiquated barriers. No one officially keeps track of how many people die on track, especially at small independent circuits, which make up the majority of America’s 1,300 racing venues, so the death toll is realistically much higher.
Sadly, over the last 18 months, innumerable concussions, injuries and permanent disabilities were also sustained, most caused by significant impact with a retaining wall or guardrail, which could have easily been prevented if anyone cared enough to do something about it.
Why haven’t any of these tragedies, or those before, provoked the motorsports industry to do the right thing? The answer is stunningly simple. Right or wrong, dangerous or life threatening, the racing world tends to accept the status quo.
Given the rising awareness of football concussions that have sparked unprecedented lawsuits, you’d think upgrading barricade walls to prevent traumatic brain injuries would become paramount. Alas, even racing insiders admit motorsports is reactive versus proactive, and is so fragmented that it’s nearly impossible to adopt industry-wide safety standards.
Football draws about 1.8 million players from youth to pro. Stats show approximately four to 13 players die each year.
Meanwhile, the number of drivers ranges between 50,000 and 400,000 including weekend warriors. Even when conservatively applying the higher number, racing’s death rate is more than five times that of football.
According to the book “Motorsports Medicine” by Dr. Harlen C. Hunter and Rick Stoff, the risk of a fatal accident in auto racing is about 30 times higher than football, with head-and-neck damage responsible for at least half of the fatalities. Add driver injuries and disabilities on top of deaths and the total is overwhelming.
Here’s a scary thought: How many drivers race with concussions and don’t even know it?
Though NASCAR and other sanctioning bodies require neurocognitive baseline assessments, who’s watching out for the thousands of other circuit participants? It only takes one abrupt stop to rattle your brain and there’s a good chance almost every racer will be involved in a bell-ringing crash during his career. The issue could eventually open the door to major lawsuits like the NFL.
When the HANS Device was first introduced in the late 1980s, racing safety companies refused to manufacture it and drivers balked at wearing it. Jim Downing never gave up, but it wasn’t until 2001 after the loss of Dale Earnhardt that NASCAR finally mandated the HANS head-and-neck restraint system, eventually followed by other sanctioning bodies.
It took more than 20 years and countless basilar skull fracture deaths, not to mention CTE concussions, before motorsports seriously considered this critical life-saving device.
Despite the HANS advancement, concussions and CTE incidents are on the rise.
There’ve been many cases of concussed racers who later developed double vision, memory lapses and more. New testing, helmet technologies and rescue techniques are in the works, yet there’s a blatant blind spot when it comes to the core of the problem.