Harris: It Was Not Luck That Saved Sadler’s Life
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.’’
– Mike Harris can be reached at email@example.com Comments