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Harris: It Was Not Luck That Saved Sadler’s Life

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 6 2010

Thanks to NASCAR safety initiatives, Elliott Sadler was standing and talking just minutes after his horrific wreck at Pocono. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images for NASCAR)

In a piece done for ESPN this week, Dr. Jerry Punch, a man who has seen his share of stock car crashes, pointed out just how lucky Elliott Sadler is to be racing in this era of advance safety features on the car and in the cockpit.

“If this were 10 years ago, on Monday, Elliott would have been in intensive care, if not worse,’’ said Punch, a former emergency room doctor turned TV reporter/analyst.

The accident last Sunday at Pocono started out pretty innocently, with two cars getting into a tangle coming off Turn One on the 2.5-mile triangle. Trailing the incident, Kurt Busch wound up hitting both the outside and inside walls hard enough to tear off a wheel.

While everyone was watching Busch sliding through the infield grass and dirt, Sadler, who had braked and been hit in the rear by A.J. Allmendinger, went nearly head-on into an infield embankment. NASCAR says G-forces registered in Sadler’s impact were the highest ever seen in a Sprint Cup crash.

The hit was so hard that it tore the engine completely out of the car.

It would be hard for anyone watching at the track or on TV to forget the aftermath, with Sadler lying flat on the ground next to his car as medical personnel checked him out. Turns out, Sadler’s most serious problem was having the wind knocked out of him by the steering wheel.

Amazingly, as Punch pointed out, “He had no fractures, no headache and no sore neck the next day.’’

The reasons why Sadler was happily ready to get back behind the wheel of his Richard Petty Racing Ford this week at Watkins Glen all date back to Feb. 18, 2001, the day Dale Earnhardt died of a basiler skull fracture in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500.

The death of the sport’s biggest star – the third NASCAR death from a whiplash-induced skull fracture in a short period of time – set off a spate of safety measures that have made a still dangerous sport considerably safer.

The list is long: Mandatory head and neck restraints, the six-point seat harness, impact helmets, carbon-fiber seats and, of course, the relatively new CoT cars with taller, wider cockpits and crush zones surrounding the driver. There are also the energy absorbing SAFER barriers but, unfortunately, the area where Busch and Sadler hit at Pocono is not yet protected by the barriers.

Pocono officials have pledged to make their track safer before next year’s first Cup race in June. That could include putting up SAFER barriers and paving over the grassy area.

Sadler understands how lucky he was on Sunday to come away from that crash without injury.

“Maybe you don’t give it much thought when you strap yourself into these newer cars or clip on your HANS Device,” said Sadler, recalling the impact reportedly about 80 G’s. “But when a situation like I had last week occurs, you realize just how much work NASCAR and the teams have done and exactly how important implementing the latest safety innovations are.”

Unfortunately, not every racing series requires all the available safety equipment be used.

Gary Milgrom, vice president of HANS Performance Products, noted a driver was killed in a crash at a Ohio track when he hit the wall at the exit of the slowest turn on the track.

“The driver was not wearing a head and neck restraint and was killed as a result of a fractured skull,’’ Milgrom noted. “You don’t have to be going fast to sustain an injury. A sudden deceleration of 30 to 35 miles an hour can result in serious injury. Higher speeds increase the risk, but anybody who competes in a race car on the track should make a head and neck restraint certified to SFI standards part of their safety gear.”

Thankfully, since Earnhardt’s death, NASCAR and its teams and drivers have been proactive in working toward safer conditions – and it seems to be working. There have been no life-threatening injuries in any of NASCAR’s professional series’ in several years.

The so-called Car of Tomorrow may not be sleek or pretty, but it is proving to be one of the safest racing vehicles ever built. But everyone knows that the way to keep that record intact is to keep working at making things even safer.

Both NASCAR and RPM are studying every part of Sadler’s battered car this week to analyze the accident and try to learn from it.

“(Safety) is something that we as the drivers, the race tracks, we all collectively need to always be looking to be better,’’ Cup driver Jeff Burton said Friday at Watkins Glen. “It’s what I talk about all the time when I talk about safety. If we think we’re good enough, we’re going to fall back to where we were.

“NASCAR has become the leader in the industry when it comes to safety and it’s because they’ve been very, very, very proactive in order to make it better. They are looking for ways to make it better. We have to have the track operator. We have to have the car owners. We have to have everybody involved and everybody willing.’’

Amen, brother.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 6 2010
4 Comments

4 Comments »

  • MISSU3 says:

    That NO one has been killed since Dale is a huge point. A concussion is nothing compared to the injuries that happened before 2001. The many bad wrecks that we have seen since 2001 and 99% of the guys have walked away sore and nothing else. As soon as Elliott was out of the car, I said “Thank God and Dale Earnhardt that he’s alive.” To have gone almost 10 years without serious injury in this sport is awesome. Look at what NHRA has suffered in just the last two years. Nadeau is alive to see his daughter grow up, unlike Dale and Steve Park is still racing, unlike Dale. Good Article.

  • Nan says:

    Chas – apparently you have not seen the wreck that Jerry Nadeau had at RIR in 2003. He was wearing a head and neck restraint device at the time.

    They had to cut Jerry out of the car and were giving him respiration with a bag. That wreck ended Jerry’s racing.

    Also Steve Park had a horrible crash at Darlington in a NW race, September 2001. He suffered a severe concussion that kept him sidelined for a long time. It affected his speech. I do not believe Steve was wearing a HANS.

    Lots of people on the highways and roads survive accidents back in the day before seatbelts and air bags. But more survive them and have less severe injuries than back in the day.

  • Chas says:

    I like and respect Jerry Punch as much as anyone, but I totally disagree with the assessment he makes in this story’s second paragraph.

    As mentioned, Jerry has seen thousands of wrecks over the years – many of which were just as severe as Elliott Sadler’s crash at Pocono. We can look back on YouTube and see almost all of them, none of which resulted in a fatality or an injury. Many of them were pre-HANS/pre-SAFER too.

    Yes, it was a huge wreck and yes Sadler is fortunate not to be hurt, but enough of the over hyping every incident these cars are in. Drivers survived tens of thousands of crashes in the old style car, many of which were as severe if not more severe than the COT.

    • Mike Harris says:

      Chas – Thanks for the comment, but I strongly disagree with you on this one. The problem is that I didn’t give enough description of what Jerry was showing in the cutaway car during his piece. The fact of the matter is the safety equipment kept Elliott from whipping forward and back and breaking his neck, the way Earnhard, Adam Petty and Tony Roper did. This one really could have been much, much worse. Yes, a lot of drivers survived in the old cars. But I wrote way too many stories about deaths and serious injuries in those days that I’m not having to write much these days. Thankfully.
      Mike