Driver Safety – NASCAR Always Learns Its Lesson
It’s typical to talk about how lucky a driver is to be alive after a major wreck during a NASCAR race. To be certain, a bit of luck is always involved when you’re travelling at 200 mph and are surrounded by 3,000 pounds of metal and flammable liquids, but it’s actually a very small part of the equation. In an article published on The Dig, Alison Ingles Daly Sr. describes Duke Nalon’s historic crash in the 23rd lap of the 1949 Indianapolis 500. This was a time when very few safety standards were in place to protect drivers. When Nalon’s car burst into flames in turn three, he had to survive the old fashioned way: by holding his breath and hoping for the best. That he survived and was able to to return to racing two years later suggests that, yes, Nalon is indeed a lucky man. But NASCAR has come a long way since 1949, and with every major mishap comes a call for more improvement and more oversight. Today, it’s safe to say that luck has very little to do with driver safety. Here are some of the key moments in the history of NASCAR safety regulations:
1966: The Modern Age of Fire Retardant Uniforms
Before NASCAR implemented a standard driver uniform, drivers basically raced in whatever clothes they happened to wear to the track that day. An especially cautious driver might where his mechanics overalls with some DIY padding, but driver safety at this point was mostly a matter of personal preference. But as the cars got faster and accidents became more commonplace, safety quickly became everyone’s concern. A select few drivers had been testing Dupont-designed flame retardant suits throughout the 60s, but after the horrific deaths of Eddie Sachs and David Macdonald at the 1964 Indianapolis 500 the uniforms quickly became a standard.
1970: Window Netting Becomes Mandatory
After two-time champion Joe Weatherly died when his head struck a guardrail during a race in 1964, drivers and officials began considering the idea of implementing window netting to protect drivers from elements outside of the car. That consideration came to a head in 1970 after Richard Petty’s horrific rollover crash at the 1970 Rebel 400. The initial impact cause Petty’s head and arm to hang outside of the car, causing them to strike the pavement as the car rotated. Needless to say, after the incident window netting was no longer considered “optional.”
1998: Softwall Implemented Just in Time
By 1998 there was a growing concern for driver injuries created by high-impact contact with the wall. As a test, a new technology called the Polyethylene Energy Dissipating System (PEDS for short) was installed on a single interior wall at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The wall was put to use later that season by Arie Luyendyk, who struck it at high speed and survived without injury. However, the resulting debris created a serious hazard for other drivers, leading to the creation of the SAFER barrier, which is now standard on all NASCAR racetracks.
2001: The Seat Belt Evolves Yet Again
For as long as drivers have been going around a track, seat-belts have been the primary safety measure. NASCAR has continually implemented newer, safer seat belt designs over the years. Drivers were initially resistant to shoulder straps because they limited their range of motion but you could hardly argue with the results. The current iteration, the six-point harness, became standard after the death of Dale Earnhardt. In addition to completely restraining the arms and torso, the harness also secures the legs. In the aftermath of an accident, drivers still only need to pull a single latch to release themselves from the belt.