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Woody: Safe Landings Biggest Story In NASCAR

Larry Woody | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, August 17 2011

Denny Hamlin was lucky. He walked away from this wreck at Watkins Glen. In the past, drivers often did not walk away. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

The biggest story in NASCAR this season is not Jimmie Johnson’s drive for a history-boggling sixth championship, Dale Earnhardt Jr’s promising comeback or the stirring first-time triumphs by five Sprint Cup drivers.

The biggest story is one that doesn’t get much coverage: drivers walking away unscathed from crashes that a few years ago would have been crippling if not fatal.

The latest case in point: On the final lap of last Monday’s race at Watkins Glen, David Reutimann and David Ragan were involved in one of the worst-appearing crashes in a sport known of horrifying-looking incidents.

Both drivers wriggled out of their mangled cars, dusted themselves off, and minutes later were doing TV interviews.

J.D. McDuffie wasn’t so lucky. A similar crash on Aug. 11, 1991 at Watkins Glen was fatal.

What’s the difference between then and now?

Ever since the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001, NASCAR has made driver safety a non-stop priority. It has built safer race cars, safer head-and-neck restraints, safer racetracks.

It still hasn’t got everything perfect; the “safer barriers” that NASCAR requires at all of its tracks in the turns and other vulnerable impact points were lacking at Watkins Glen in the spot where Rutimann and Regan crashed. I’ll bet they will be there next race.

NASCAR sometimes is criticized for how it runs the sport. But it does a lot of things right, starting with safety, and nothing is more important than that.

Some old-time fans believe NASCAR sometimes goes too far with its school-zone pit-road speeds, prohibiting racing back to the flag under caution, and freezing the running order as soon as a caution flag flutters. But if it’s going to err on the matter of safety, better too much than too little.

NASCAR’s safety record in recent years has become so impressive that it tends to go unnoticed and unappreciated. It’s like planes landing safety at the airport day after day. The media doesn’t pay any attention to safe landings, and more and more we don’t pay much attention to the fact that NASCAR drivers are walking away from crashes that once would have resulted in grim headlines.

In this case, no news is good news.

But it’s also fitting and fair to reflect on what an excellent job NASCAR has done in the area of improved driver safety. Auto racing will never be entirely risk-free, and nobody should get cocky, casual and over-confident. But the fact that drivers like Reutimann and Ragan – and a dozen others like them in recent years – are able to survive such terrifying tumbles is a tribute to NASCAR’s continued commitment.

– Larry Woody can be reached at lwoody@racintoday.com

Larry Woody | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, August 17 2011
2 Comments

2 Comments »

  • Mr. Racing says:

    By focusing on the safety of the cars, you, along with FOX, ESPN and TNT, become an enabler for NASCAR and the various track owners; who have (apparently) abandoned the long-publicized “goal” of installing safer barriers around the tracks.

    That said, perhaps Brian F. will now invite you to have a cocktail or five, at the base of the palm tree by his condo.

    Look for the one with safer barriers.

    • Dennis says:

      Bang on Mr. Racing. The tracks themselves must be made safe and The Glen certainly isn’t. We are still having horrific wrecks that take your breath away in the same areas as before. This is extremely unfair to the drivers and their families.