One of the US’s largest spectator sports is NASCAR. However, there’s not a firm consensus of what draws viewers to the sport. Some fans say they only watch it for the crashes. With that reputation, it’s not surprising that many people think NASCAR is dangerous.
NASCAR is not as dangerous as audiences may think. Stock car racing today is the safest it has ever been. It’s been 19 years since there was a fatality in the sport, and while crashes are common, each collision inspires new safety measures.
Below, we will go through the details about why NASCAR seems so dangerous, and talk about some of the most recent big crashes. We will also discuss what these crashes have done for the sport, and finally compare NASCAR to other motorsports as well.
What Makes NASCAR Dangerous?
While NASCAR is the safest it’s ever been, the sport is also the riskiest it’s ever been. As technology improves, the cars get faster and faster, topping out at over 200 miles an hour during the race. Because these cars are almost identical, it makes these races incredibly competitive, with drivers relying on their skill to try and get an advantage.
Even casual NASCAR fans recognize the sport by its bunched-up racing style. As the cars circle the track, they do so within feet of each other, coming perilously close to collisionswith every turn.
This driving style has become popular with the standardization of the stock car. This close driving style allows cars to draftoff the vehicles in front of them, lowering wind resistance and increasingspeed. However, this close driving style is partly to blame for the increase in serious crashes. Staying so close to other cars means there’s a smaller margin for error when things go wrong.
The last factor that increases the chance of trouble on the track is the length of races. With races over 400 miles long, there’s a chance for drivers to start to feel fatigued by the end of the race. Most dangerous collisions happen in the final stages of the event, when tensions are high, the drivers are tired, and there’s a dead heat to the finish.
What Are Some Of The Most Recent Crashes?
Dale Earnhardt Sr.
One example of NASCAR’s massive safety improvements is that there haven’t been any fatalities in over 19 years. The last driver to die due to injuries sustained during a race was Dale Earnhardt Sr., who passed away after a hard impact with track boundaries on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
In 2013, Michael Annettsuffered a broken sternum after being involved in an 11-car-crash in the final laps of the Daytona 500. The collision happened in a pack of drivers when Austin Dillon in the number 3 Chevrolet slid into the front of Annett’s 43 Ford. The encounter caused Annett to spin out and hit hard into the right-side wall, which was the injury-causing impact.
During the last lap of the 2013 Auto Club 400, Joey Logano in the 22 Ford turned into Denny Hamlin’s11 Toyota Camry, causing the car to spin out and impact the wall. The collision was so violent that Hamlin sustained compression fractures in his lower back.
Kyle Busch suffered two broken legs in a crash with nine laps to go in the 2015 Daytona 500. Erik Jones, driving the 20 Toyota, lost control in the middle of the pack, turning into Busch’s 54 Toyota. The collision caused Busch to lose control and veer low into the track, cutting across the grassy median and impacting the interior wall at 100 miles per hour.
Ryan Newman’s February 2020 race at the Daytona 500 is the most violent crash in recent memory for many NASCAR fans. While getting a push from Ryan Blaney’s number 12 Mustang, Newman lost control of his number 6 Ford and went spinning into the wall.
The crash caused his car to roll into Corey LaJoie’s32 car, which then catapulted the car into the air. Newman’s car landed on its hood, skidding for several yards before coming to a rest and catching fire.
No More Fatalities
The important thing about all of the crashes after Dale Earnhardt’s is that they did not result in fatalities. Even Ryan Newman’s horrific crash only resulted in three missed races. Drivers can walk away from these crashes due to the incredible innovations NASCAR has made to keep their drivers safe.
Safety Improvements NASCAR’s Made from these Races
NASCAR’s Research and Development team is always working to improve their product to make the races more exciting but also safer. These innovations include updates made to driver protective equipment, track boundaries, and the vehicle itself.
The HANS Device
After Dale Earnhardt Sr’s death, NASCAR made several widespread changes to make the sport safer. The first significant regulation required all drivers to use a head-and-neck-support (HANS) device. The HANS device helps prevent the head from snapping back during high-speed collisions, which many experts think might have saved Earnhardt.
The next addition that NASCAR implemented was installing Steel and Foam Energy Reduction Barriers (SAFER barriers) on some of the walls. The new barriers are flexible and help slow the car down before it hits the concrete track boundaries.
The final safety improvement made in the wake of Dale Earnhardt’s death was the GM Collision Data Recorder, or “black box.” This device records all essential data from collisions, helping NASCAR evaluate them empirically and make evidence-based improvements to the sport.
After Annett’s 2013 crash, NASCAR R&D made changes to the seatbelt, changing the tension of the straps to prevent similar sternum and rib injuries. They also added a hip harness that helped spread out the pressure of the straps.
These improvements helped in Kyle Larson’s2019 crash at Talladega, where his 42 Camaro went airborne during a collision. Larson sustained no injuries in the accident, which he attributed to the stretchiness of the harness.
Hamlin’s spine fractures from his 2013 resulted in expanding SAFER barriersalong the track’s retaining walls. NASCAR also started working on redesigning the driver’s seat to protect them from compression injuries after a crash.
More Safety Changes
In response to Busch’s injuries from his 2015 crash, NASCAR looked to crush and crumple zones around the driver’s feet. The governing body also required SAFER barriers to be installed on the interior walls of the track.
Ryan Newman has been a firm advocate for improving driver safety in NASCAR and is even responsible for a piece of the vehicle roll cage called the “Newman Bar.” NASCAR implemented the bar in 2009 after Newman pushed for additional safety measures in the car. It helps support the vehicle’s roof during rollovers and has been credited with saving his life during his 2020 crash.
How Does NASCAR Compare To Other Sports?
Not many people would generally think that driving at 200 miles an hour is safer than playing football. However, if you consider the data, there may be a case for considering NASCAR to be one of the safest spectator sports out there.
Lower Injury Rates
While the chance of fatalities from playing football is low, serious injury is relatively high. Most NFL players will lose time due to an injury during their career, be it a concussion, a broken leg, or torn ACL.
Comparably speaking, NASCAR has a much lower incidence of injury. Most of these injuries tend to be problems caused by stiff driving positions, such as lower back strain or tendonitis caused by gripping and manipulating the steering wheel. Significant injuries, like concussions or broken bones, only happen in crashes, which have been trending downward in recent years.
What About Other NASCAR Series?
These conclusions are derived from NASCAR’s highest level of racing, the NASCAR Cup Series. However, several lower NASCAR levels have different injury statistics, which are essential to note.
Since Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s death in February 2001, there have been six deaths in other NASCAR series. Two of these accidents were in NASCAR Modified Series racing, which is an open-wheel style of racing. Modified cars are open-wheeled vehicles that are smaller than the standard NASCAR stock car.
Because there’s less national attention on the lower stock-car racing levels, there’s less focus onsafety than in the higher series. These series usually race on smaller tracks that don’t have equal access to updated safety equipment (like the SAFER barriers, which are between $500-$600 a foot).
Improve Safety At All Levels
To participate in the NASCAR Cup Series, drivers usually have to succeed in one of these lower series. This mandatory access for the sport puts an onus on increasing safety in these lower ranks, helping the sport improve overall.
There was an average of three crashes per race in the 2019 NASCAR season. However, very few of those crashes resulted in serious injury for the drivers involved. With each collision, NASCAR R&D does a lot of research to try and conclude what caused the accident, how to prevent it, and how to make the sport safer.
When you compare NASCAR to sports like football that result in consistently high injury rates for athletes, it’s easy to see how stock-car driving is safer than other sports. Injuries are at an all-time low in NASCAR, which is excellent news for fans, drivers, and the sport overall. While in the early days of NASCAR safety was a real problem, there is no doubt it is much safer today.