Hitting a wall
THE MORNING AFTER his accident at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 26, Jeff Gordon woke up sore. Too sore. Fresh off his 701st career start, he knew that this much pain shouldn't be lingering in his neck and back. So he sat down and watched the video of his Chevy crashing along the frontstretch. As he hurtled toward the wall, Gordon remembered bracing himself but also being comforted by the thought of a Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barrier absorbing most of the impact. Upon further review, however, there was no SAFER barrier there at all. "I didn't quite understand the pain I was feeling that night until I watched the video," Gordon said about one week later, visibly exhausted from the discomfort and resulting lack of sleep. "I had no idea there was no SAFER barrier. I was kind of shocked."
Although NASCAR does require SAFER barriers to cover retaining walls at oval speedways, stock car's sanctioning body doesn't mandate 100 percent coverage, leaving gaps of exposed, bone-crushing concrete. Track owners cite the cost (roughly $1 million per SAFER mile) and claim that research shows the areas left uncovered are those least likely to be hit. Gordon knows that the safety changes made since the death of friend and rival Dale Earnhardt in 2001 have repeatedly saved lives. But he also knows firsthand that those gaps are real vulnerabilities. As evidence, he cites Richmond, Las Vegas, Dover and now Charlotte, all tracks where he's hit bare retaining walls over the past five years. So Gordon has started lobbying for more aggressive coverage, calling out track owners and NASCAR on Twitter with the hashtag #Saferbarrierseverywhere!
If Jeff Gordon, the sport's living legend, is screaming for change, then for the life of me (and the lives of the racers I cover), I can't understand why so many refuse to listen, especially in light of the past two months. On May 24, sprint car racer Josh Burton, 22, crashed at an Indiana dirt track and died a day later. On June 12, former NASCAR driver Jason Leffler, 37, died after a wreck at a dirt track in New Jersey. On June 22, Danish racer Allan Simonsen, 34, crashed barely nine minutes into the 24 Hours of Le Mans and later died. All three accidents were as vastly different as the venues where they occurred, and there is no guarantee any of the men could have been saved. But each incident spurred questions about whether all available means had been used to protect them.
Unfortunately, those questions aren't always welcome. Randy LaJoie, a former Nationwide champ who tirelessly conducts safer-racer inspections and education programs at short tracks, faced backlash when he suggested Leffler would have survived if his seat had the correct full-containment headrest used in NASCAR. Meanwhile, NASCAR chairman Brian France bristled a bit at concerns about gaps in SAFER coverage: "When we need to put in additional SAFER barriers, we will do it. We think we have them in all the right places."
NASCAR is considering SAFER barriers inside the fourth turn at California's Auto Club Speedway, but only after Denny Hamlin wrecked March 24 and suffered a lower-back compression fracture. Sadly, that's how this process works: a road of safety innovation lined with the wreckage of those who paid a far greater price than $1 million per mile. In 1964 it took the deaths of NASCAR's two biggest stars, Joe Weatherly and Fireball Roberts, to implement roll cage and fuel cell reinforcement. Earnhardt's death was the fourth in less than a year, all from skull fractures, but it took the Intimidator to spur a safety revolution.
Not a single driver has died across NASCAR's top three series since 2001, the longest fatality-free stretch in stock car history. But big league body counts can't be the lone unit of measure. Hard truths can be found within close calls like Gordon's too. When asked why NASCAR hasn't required complete SAFER coverage, Gordon audibly scoffs: "There's only one reason: cost. That's it." Had he died at Charlotte … or Las Vegas … or Richmond … or Dover, every racetrack in the world would have been blanketed with SAFER technology. That's what troubles me most: Gordon's voice, while very much alive, seems to have much less impact than his life would.