In NASCAR's world, it's always safety first
by Dr. Jerry Punch, Special to

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- NASCAR is noted for safety. Bill France, Sr., who passed away a few years ago, and now his son Bill France, Jr., who runs the organization, believe safety is the No. 1 priority, then competition, then cost, and so on. And I think that's one of the reasons why this sport has continued to progress.

Any race fan knows there is an air violence associated with the sport. But most of these fans know the drivers can walk away from the violent tumbles like Geoffrey Bodine's on Friday in the Craftsman Trucks Daytona 250 with minor injuries. They don't mind watching these types of crashes, knowing there is a risk involved in NASCAR, like in any of their own lives.

Gary Nelson
Winston Cup Series director Gary Nelson, center, surveys the damage to the catch fence at the Daytona International Speedway.
What has made NASCAR so successful is that they've listened to their competitors and learned from their mistakes. I think Bobby Allison's crash at Talladega in 1987, when his car got into the catch fence and nearly into the grandstands, taught NASCAR and the race tracks about safety -- both for the drivers and the fans.

Today's catch fences, like the ones at Daytona International Speedway, have double the wire of those of the 1980s. The openings between the restraining fences are narrower, but still don't obstruct the fans' view. The fences are constructed with stronger poles, and cable runs through the fence, reinforcing it for incidents just like the one that saw Bodine's truck hit the fence and stay on the track. The combination worked to perfection.

What NASCAR learned 12 years ago regarding catch fences at their tracks kept a truck and most of its parts on the race track Friday. The safety features built into the framing of the truck did its job, as well. And as a result, nine fans and a driver suffered minor injuries instead of possibly something far worse.

The roll cage Bodine came to rest in on the speedway track is built to specific guidelines. The bars, or tubing, is a certain density. NASCAR has gone beyond the typical inspection. Officials use technology to gauge each bar's density -- almost like a mechanic's ultrasound to determine the depth and density of those bars.

This one may be the worst. While I haven't seen the truck up close yet, it may be the worse crash I've seen based on total destruction of the car -- or truck in this case.
Dr. Jerry Punch, ESPN auto racing analysist
A few years ago, teams tried to adjust the weight in cars by using thinner tubes, even a muffler-type tube that would collapse if you even leaned on it. But at the cost of trying to get more weight to the left side of the car, they didn't realize they were sacrificing safety, and to some extent, possibly their own livelihood and their drivers' lives.

Over the last few years, NASCAR has actually added bars to the roll cages.

Today's cars have what is called the "A.J. Foyt Bar," which runs diagonally from the right of the driver's seat toward the right front tire. There is also the "Earnhardt Bar," which goes across the middle of the windshield. This bar keeps the roof from collapsing and came about after Dale Earnhardt's violent collision at Talladega a couple of years ago, when he slid down the track on his roof. When Earnhardt reached for the switch to stop the motor, he found his rear-view mirror in the way. His whole roof had collapsed.

Those bars, in addition to NASCAR's old bars, which are bent, shaped and welded to specific degree and certain angles so they will not collapse in the cage itself, keep a driver as safe a possible. But the car's sheet metal and frame are welded at certain angles so that it will collapse and absorb energy. That's what's called the front clip and the rear clip. When Bodine's car disintegrated, as scary as it looked, it was by design, not by accident.

The front of the car, or truck, is sheared away. The engine goes tumbling off down the track. The back of the truck is sheared away. What is left is the cage -- and that's what it is, a cage with a driver inside, rattling around and tumbling. He may get a few minor injuries, but the cage remains intact.

Now, obviously, Geoffrey Bodine was a millisecond second away from being hit on the top of his cage by another car -- and that's the most vulnerable part of the cage. There are only a few bars on top, plus a mat to keep dirt and debris out of the car. So, if Bodine had been hit on the roof, this might have been a far more tragic wreck.

But Bodine was maybe a half-second away from impact when his truck turned as it pivoted in the air. It was just high enough as the other truck caught up to him and went under him. Another split-second, had the truck not gotten high enough, Bodine would have been hit right in the head.

It doesn't get much worse than what happened Friday. We've all seen Richard Petty's horrendous crash at Daytona -- his car dancing along the fence, pirouetting on its nose along the fence out of Turn 4. Ricky Rudd's somersault in the Busch Class years ago also remains fresh in the mind. And Rusty Wallace had violent crashes at both Daytona and Talladega. Then there is always Bobby Allison's ride along the Talladega fence at 200 mph.

This one may be the worst. While I haven't seen the truck up close yet, it may be the worse crash I've seen based on total destruction of the car -- or truck, in this case. The only one that might have been worse was Michael Waltrip's crash in a Busch car at Bristol when he hit the concrete crossover gate.

Waltrip's car just exploded like somebody had put a bomb in it. When safety crews got to him, Waltrip was sitting in his seat on the race track with his feat on the track. The cage was opened up like somebody had taken a giant can opener and split it in half.

Darrell Waltrip came running out on the track, crying, thinking his brother was dead. But when he got to Michael, his younger brother said, "What are you crying about?" Michael then realized there was no steering wheel, no dash board, no floor board -- just half a roll cage lying there with his feet on the race track. That's all that was left of that race car.

Even though that cage buckled and opened, it absorbed the energy and Michael Waltrip walked away. It wasn't Michael's day to die. Just like it wasn't Geoffrey Bodine's day to die at Daytona on Friday.

Search for on
Copyright ©2000 ESPN Internet Ventures. Terms of Use and Privacy Policy and Safety Information are applicable to this site. Click here for a list of employment opportunities at
 ESPN Network: | | | NASCAR | | | ABCSports | FANTASY | STORE | INSIDER