HUNTERSVILLE – Tony Stewart’s sprint car crash Aug. 5 left the two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion with a broken leg and his sport with more safety questions.
The crash, which happened at Southern Iowa Speedway, forced Stewart out of his Sprint Cup car during a crucial point in the season.
Crashes are nothing new in motorsports. Nor are injuries.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed two Chase for the Sprint Cup races in 2012 because of concussions. Denny Hamlin suffered a compression fracture in his back in March. He missed four races.
Drivers say NASCAR has made numerous improvements with regard to driver safety. Earnhardt and Hamlin sustained their injuries in NASCAR races, while Stewart got hurt in a dirt-track sprint car race out of NASCAR’s sanction.
There was a time, NASCAR Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett said, when drivers wouldn’t emerge from cars after bad accidents.
Safety improvements have given drivers more protection, but in Earnhardt’s and Hamlin’s cases, it’s not been foolproof. It may never be, Jarrett admitted, but significant progress has been made.
“The kind of safety harnesses (have evolved),” he said. “We just had a single seatbelt on your lap (in the 1960s). Now we have a shoulder harness and other belts, and it all ties into the car. Another thing that has been developed in the past several years, especially since Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed, is the seat.”
Several drivers have died from sprint car crashes this year, including NASCAR driver Jason Leffler, but no driver has perished in a major-series NASCAR event since Earnhardt Sr. in 2001 at Daytona International Speedway.
Earnhardt Sr.’s death led NASCAR to require drivers to wear head and neck restraints. NASCAR-sanctioned racetracks in the sport’s top three series also adopted Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barriers at different points around the tracks.
“It reduces the impact so much,” Jarrett’s son, Dale, also a NASCAR legend, said. “I know people call them ‘soft walls.’ There’s nothing soft about them but they dissipate a lot of energy.
“There’s just no reason not to have them on every wall. I know it’s an expensive issue but with all the initiatives that have gone on in our sport, there’s no reason to let the drivers find those spots (without SAFER barriers). We need to rectify that situation as quickly as possible because in this day in time, where it’s readily available and it takes little time to install, then it needs to happen.”
A SAFER barrier wouldn’t have helped Stewart in his crash, because the open-wheel sprint car he piloted collided with another car, not the wall. The effect of the crash, however, extends beyond Stewart.
It poses the question, should NASCAR’s drivers – if they appreciate the sport’s safety standards – compete in racing disciplines like sprint cars or sports cars and risk getting hurt?
Fellow driver Kasey Kahne has never missed a Sprint Cup race due to injury, but he's taken the risk and driven in many sprint car races.
Kahne said in an Aug. 14 teleconference with reporters that Stewart's crash should make people re-examine safety issues in racing. Kahne's racing plans, however, won't change.
"When I feel like racing a sprint car again, I will," he said. "Right now, I've kind of been focused on trying to do the best I can in the Sprint Cup car ... It doesn't really change myself wanting to race. It's exactly the same as it was before he got in that wreck."
Stewart-Haas Competition Director Greg Zipadelli said in a teleconference that drivers face a tough call when picking what, if any, extra races to enter.
“I think it makes (Stewart) better at what he does (in Sprint Cup), but it obviously leaves the door open for a situation that we're in now,” Zipadelli said. “I think that as many races as he's run in the past, we're probably lucky that this is the first time we're dealing with this (as a team).”