One of the greatest draws to winged sprint car racing is the danger it entails. Those loud, funny-looking race cars with different sized tires that battle wheel to wheel only inches apart on dirt tracks of different shapes and sizes have created a die-hard following that oozes addiction.
The passionless ones don’t last long in an expensive and exhilarating sport that can be met by the cruelest of heartbreaks, a seething gut punch of seeing someone injured or killed.
There is no doubt the danger is part of the allure, but the recent string of high-profile deaths in winged sprint car racing is more than alarming. Even though the risk is accepted by all who climb into a custom seat, secured by a five-point harness and the latest safety equipment — often times flipping at 100 mph seems safer than a fender bender in a residential neighborhood — the loss of life is at the forefront for those who lead the sport.
Two world-renowned drivers — 2016 Knoxville Nationals winner Jason Johnson and Pennsylvania Posse veteran Greg Hodnett — died as the result of violent crashes during the 2018 season.
While safety has long been a major topic of discussion, several deaths in recent years, capped by the fatal crashes of Johnson and Hodnett, have sparked a strong push toward ideas that will result in a better safety record.
A sprint car council was formed during the summer, with the group first meeting during the Knoxville Nationals before a second meeting at the World Finals. Comprised of approximately 30 individuals representing tracks and series from across the country, the council will focus on track safety, car/chassis safety, aerodynamics and forward-looking rules changes.
Veteran sprint car driver and 2014 World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car Series champion Daryn Pittman, who is part of the council, has been extremely forthcoming about safety concerns.
“We’re never going to be safe,” he said. “It’s still inherently a dangerous sport. It’s made me question what I do and why I do what I do. At the end of the day, all I can do is know that my car and everything we do on it is as safe as possible. Steps are being done to make it safer as are the race tracks. I think we all accept that when it’s your time, it’s your time.
“I think both instances this year with Jason and Greg, one small thing in both of those accidents and those guys get right out and aren’t hurt,” Pittman added. “Both of them were a perfect storm in a bad way. You can’t live your life scared. I refuse to live my life scared of dying. If I quit driving because I was scared of it, I’d get killed in a car wreck taking my kids to school.
“We all are going to (pass away). I’m not signing up for it. I don’t always understand it, but when it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go. I think that gets all of us through. Why was it Jason and why was it Greg’s (time)? That I don’t understand and it’s hard to grasp. We’re race car drivers. This is what we do. Not only because it’s what we do, it’s become my identity. If I’m not racing, who am I? What am I? What is my purpose? Everyone who’s in this sport has an undeniable passion for this sport. That’s why we keep moving forward.
“I’d love to get it where we don’t have these issues. I pray that happens,” Pittman continued. “We’re all working hard to keep this from happening again. NASCAR is a great example of that. I don’t think they’ve lost anyone since Dale Earnhardt. That was 2001. No doubt we can make a lot of improvements. The last few years there has been way too many (deaths). Let’s fix it or make it better so we can continue putting on a show and doing what we love.”
While the drivers have utilized the best safety equipment for many years, rules are adopted or amended each season with an emphasis on the cars. For this year, a major addition to the roll cage has been mandated along with rules requiring a steel left-front radius rod, the strengthening the wing posts, and the nerf bars being mounted with three points.
“The biggest one is what we’re adding to the support bars in the driver’s compartment,” said Tom Devitt, World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car Series technical director. “It decreases the distance between the front and rear uprights in the driver’s compartment. We saw a couple of accidents that scared some people. A couple of the drivers and owners and chassis manufacturers made the suggestion of adding that bar so that’s the solution we came up with.
“The drivers are coming to us saying, ‘We’re seeing this and that.’ What we’re asking the tracks to do is start making improvements,” he continued. “We want to see barrels in front of blunt areas and that sort of thing. We’re not looking at race tracks to be rebuilt. When we were making our second trip around this year (we noticed a lot of tracks made improvements). Lernerville added barrels. Port Royal added some stuff. They took our advice and started looking at the race tracks.”