Two for the Road is a hangout for mystery writers Tammy Kaehler and Simon Wood to chat, reminisce, gossip, speculate and argue about all things motorsport.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Safety in Racing

by Tammy

Racecar driver Jason Leffler died last Wednesday in a sprint car accident on a dirt track. There's speculation that something broke on the car, which is what propelled him into the wall, and we know that he hit the wall hard twice. He died from blunt force trauma to the neck (that's basically hitting something, not simply damage from deceleration forces), and I saw one suggestion that the first impact damaged the integrity of the car's cage, which allowed Leffler to be hurt in the second impact, or in both.

What I'm finding interesting, however, is the more subdued response to his death compared to Dan Wheldon's, for instance. After Wheldon's—which was in a much more public forum and happened to (let's be honest) a much more famous driver—there were tribute laps and weeks of discussion about how to make cars and tracks more safe. The response to Leffler's death seems to be less dramatic.

I suppose there are more reasons for that, specifically that dirt track racing is what it is, and will never be as regulated as the big-money series like IndyCar or NASCAR. I'm not saying no one cares, far from it. But the general consensus is that racecar drivers simply can't escape physics. Which is true enough.

Drivers, series, and tracks do their best to minimize the forces transferred to the driver's body in the event of a crash. The HANS (head and neck system, shown above), SAFER (steel and foam energy reduction, shown below) barriers, and the Car of Tomorrow were all mandated or instituted after Dale Earnhardt's death in 2001, in which he impacted the wall at -68 to -48 Gs. The CoT and SAFER barriers do a lot to absorb some of that force—as do tire barriers—but they can't do everything. (The HANS helps keep your neck where it should be and transfers force to the rest of your body.)

Leffler was wearing a HANS. So was Wheldon. But they weren't driving a CoT (those are in NASCAR). SAFER barriers didn't do Wheldon any good, because he flew above them (the ability to launch has been greatly reduced with the new IndyCar chassis, ugly though it may be). Leffler's local dirt track didn't have SAFER barriers, nor is it likely to put them in. Because that's not what dirt track racing is about.

Again, there's only so much you can do to outwit physics. Racing's history is littered with lives lost, famous and not-so-famous ones. I suppose it's only in the modern day that we have the luxury of being shocked when one of our current stars dies, because it's become so rare. Lucky us.

But every once in a while, we're reminded that there's really nothing about racing that's safe.

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