On the night of May 3, 2012, the legends of auto racing gathered at the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame, located alongside the Talladega Superspeedway. Dressed in tuxedos, they worked the room and they chatted. They talked about racing. They talked about lost friends. And they talked about football, conversations spurred by the news of Junior Seau, found dead in his home just 24 hours earlier.
Whether they were stock car racers, open wheel racers or drag racers, most had driven to the gala with their radios on. Those radios were tuned to the sports talk stations of central Alabama, perhaps America's most football-crazed region.
Those shows were dominated with arguments about the future of the game of football. About concussions, depression caused by concussions and the recent push to implement safety-related rules and equipment into the modern game, from youth leagues through the NFL.
"I must have heard a hundred people screaming about not wanting people to mess with the games, about football becoming too soft," said Bobby Allison, the NASCAR champion who had his legendary career cut short in 1988 by a series of frightening injuries. "All I could think was, man, all this sure does sound like all of us in racing not so long ago."
Allison is talking about the turn of the century, a mere dozen years ago. That's when all forms of motor sports were startled awake by a series of tragedies that in retrospect could have been avoided or at least lessened had the participants swallowed their pride and taken advantage of the tools already available to them.
"Nobody is more macho than a racer or a football player," said John Force, the all-time wins leader in NHRA drag racing and a former junior college quarterback. "But you hear these football guys saying, 'I'm going to tackle with my head, man, because that's how Dick Butkus did it. And I'm not going to wear some new crazy helmet because I don't want to look like a nerd.' Well, guess what? They sound like us. They sound like racers. And we waited too late to do the stuff we're doing now. That was stupid. I love football. But those guys, they can't be like we were."
In 2012, the idea of a racetrack not having its concrete retaining walls covered with SAFER energy-absorbing "soft walls" isn't just laughable, it creates outrage. Today, any racers who climbed into the cockpit without a head and neck support (HANS) device attached to their helmet would feel exposed. They would feel just as naked if they weren't sitting in a custom-fitted carbon fiber driver's seat, or strapped in with multiple-point harnesses, or if they looked around them and saw that some of the steel roll bars around that cockpit were missing.
But all of those safety changes were initially rejected. Primarily for no reason other than hubris.
From 1996 to 2001, 10 drivers were killed across the major American racing series. It culminated with four NASCAR deaths in nine months, including Dale Earnhardt's fatal accident in the Daytona 500. That proved to be the final straw. Almost overnight, racers across all series softened their resistance to safety regulations. In the decade-plus since, no one has died on a NASCAR racetrack, despite multiple collisions that through "black box" measurements have registered at 50-plus on the g-force scale.
"The first time I wore a HANS was after Dale died," recalled Terry Labonte, the two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion who began his big league racing career in 1978. "I knew some guys had looked into it and a couple were wearing it. But the word got out that it was too uncomfortable, so most people just ignored it. But after Dale got killed all the sudden we were all trying them on. All kinds of stuff."
When Labonte looked into the HANS, he talked with the people who had invented the carbon fiber, U-shaped device that sits on a driver's shoulders and attaches to the helmet. During a crash, it prevents the head from moving too far and too fast, minimizing the risk of a basilar skull fracture, an injury that occurs when the head tries to separate itself from the body. Most old school drivers, including Earnhardt, complained that it was too stiff and too cumbersome. Others said it just looked weird.
"I said, 'Well, this deal is kind of new right?'" Labonte said. "Then they told me it had been around for nearly 20 years. It made me sick to my stomach thinking about the lives we could have saved had we just been willing to give it a shot earlier than we did."
Labonte, knowing that the youngsters coming into the sport were always going to take their cues from their heroes, took it upon himself to let them know it was OK to give in to safety. There was nothing wimpy about taking care of yourself, even if it wasn't old school.
"I remember the first conversation I ever had with Terry Labonte," Dale Earnhardt Jr. recently recalled. "The summer after Dad's accident I was hanging out with a bunch of the older guys, my heroes. Terry looks at me and says, 'I see you haven't been wearing a head and neck restraint. You ought to. I'd like to see you stick around for a while.'"
The next week Earnhardt was geared up.
"Maybe that's what the football guys need," said Richard Petty, the King of stock car racing, former all-conference guard at Randleman (N.C.) High School and lifelong Washington Redskins devotee. "They need to be shown by their elders that it's OK. If an All-Pro linebacker ran out there wearing a special helmet that helps with concussions, then maybe they might all start wearing it."
In 2007, drag racing up-and-comer Eric Medlen was killed during a practice session in Gainesville, Fla. His head was rocked side-to-side with such violence that his brain was literally shaken to death. Medlen was driving for John Force Racing, and Force used that tragedy to start the Eric Medlen Project, a safety initiative that studied and eventually overhauled the way that dragsters are constructed. The body, head and legs were now surrounded by more iron railings.
Many of Force's rivals reacted not with appreciation, but with anger. More rails meant having to build all new race cars. And that meant spending more money. So most refused to listen.
"Later I was in the most god awful crash anyone had ever seen," Force recalls, talking about a Sept. 23, 2007, accident in Dallas. The ultraviolent, 315 mph collision ripped his car in half and ripped his then 58-year-old body apart, breaking his right knee, left wrist, left ankle and burning off the ends of his fingers and toes. "But I suffered no brain damage. Not even a headache. Eric Medlen saved my life. And damn if other drag racers didn't start calling and saying, so, um, tell me about this new car."
Throughout the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame event, and throughout the NASCAR and NHRA paddocks the following weekend, the message from the racing world to the football world was as loud and clear as a 358-cubic inch engine. And it was underlined as NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Eric McClure survived a Saturday crash at Talladega that no doubt would have been fatal just a short time ago.
Don't waste time clinging to an image of how the sport should be when you could be working toward making it something better. And safer.
"I hear folks saying, 'Bear Bryant wouldn't have wanted all these safety rules,'" Allison said. "Well, I knew Bear Bryant and they're wrong. He wanted his kids to be tough. But he would have never put their lives and their brains at risk just to win a ballgame. He would have worked to protect them."