Tuesday, August 3, 2010

On the fallacy that Sadler would have been killed if not for the COT

Having known quite a few racecar drivers in my days, I am pleased that the modern racecar is as safe as it is. No one wants to see racecar drivers, or crew members or anyone else involved in the sport, injured or worse.

But there is a huge fallacy that is being perpetuated by the racing media, one that overlooks years and years of history and even logic.

The belief that drivers involved in crashes in the COT would have been injured, or even killed, in the old car is rubbish. Was Elliott Sadler's wreck at Pocono nasty? Sure it was. Would it have had a much worse outcome in the old car? It's obviously impossible to tell because he didn't have an exact duplicate of the accident in the old car. However, logic and history says he probably would have climbed out, just like he did on Sunday.

There were hundreds of big crashes with the older car throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Granted, there were injuries and yes, there were fatalities - crashes claimed the lives of J.D. McDuffie, John Nemechek, Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, Tony Roper, and Dale Earnhardt. However, those were all before head and neck restraints were implemented. Once the HANS device and the Hutchens device were mandated, savage crashes were still commonplace but the injuries that proved fatal for the above drivers were (for the most part) eradicated.

That's not to say that Sadler would have been injured without a HANS device. Journeyman driver Rick Mast had a savage crash at Watkins Glen in 1993, a crash that saw his car smash into the Armco barrier and launch into the air, and he climbed out under his own power moments later. This was in the day before containment seats that ensured the driver's head didn't snap from side to side, before the HANS device, before all of the modern safety enhancements that we constantly hear are the only reason drivers are able to survive these wrecks.

Here is Mast's crash from the 1993 Bud at the Glen via YouTube.

There are hundreds of other videos on YouTube that prove the point.

Is the COT a good thing? Underneath it's ugly and overly aero-dependent skin, yes it is. The safety enhancements of the COT are a welcome addition, no one would argue that. But the evidence is there if those interested enough to look for it chose to find it. The old car, while not perfect, was pretty darn good.

And despite the COT's safety enhancements, the HANS device, and SAFER barriers, it's just a matter of time before we're reading these journalists' reactions to a fatal accident. It could be a week, a month, a year, or a decade, but it will happen. No one wants it to happen, but it's a part of the sport that can never be erased. The human body simply is not meant to travel at 200 miles per hour, no matter how tightly its encased in a seat, wrapped in energy-absorbing materials and then placed in a cocoon of welded steel tubing.

NASCAR's safety record is amazing over its entire history, but virtually all of the improvements that have been made over the years are reactionary in nature. Why? Because no one can predict what is yet to come. It's easy to look back and say 'we should wear full-face helmets' or even 'wouldn't a fireproof uniform make more sense than short sleeved shirts'. Despite all of the research and development going on to prevent it, no one knows what the cause of the next fatal accident will be.

Here is hoping NASCAR doesn't ever give up on that research. But here's also to hoping that the media and the blogosphere that covers this sport comes to grips with reality on this subject.

Monday, August 2, 2010

On the secret penalties and fixing phantom cautions

It’s been almost a week since NASCAR’s “secret” fines to Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman were announced. In that time, I’ve spent quite a few hours formulating my thoughts so I could coherently express myself. I hope I am able to do that in this posting.

First, I still love NASCAR. Despite disagreeing with the sanctioning body on numerous points, they overall do a good job of running the sport and keeping it moving in the right direction. I also believe that they truly do think the decisions they make are for the betterment of the sport, even if the reality of their decisions don’t make anything markedly better.

Second, I hope the recent flap started by these fines leads somewhere. It could simply be that the NASCAR Foundation has an influx of cash and that’s the end of it. Or, NASCAR could take the comments made by both drivers to heart and make some concrete changes that actually do make the sport better.

Newman has had several major accidents throughout his career, any one of which could have had a seriously negative outcome. Should he be opinionated about restrictor plate racing? Yes. Should he air his dirty laundry in public? Probably not, but drivers have been complaining vociferously about restrictor plate racing since at least 1988 (the year the plates were implemented; coincidence?). Not once in over 20 years of racing in a huge pack has NASCAR shown any real initiative to do away with them and make the racing at Daytona and Talladega less crazy. So can Newman be faulted for speaking out to the media?

Hamlin touched on a subject that thousands of fans – if not millions – have grown weary of in recent years. It’s long been suggested that NASCAR will call a caution when it needs to tighten up the competition for entertainment’s sake. They will poll their spotters around the track and see if anyone can spot any debris. Now, they may actually have good intentions – no one will argue that there should be debris on the track, and no one will say they love to see racecars spread out at one second intervals with no racing throughout the field.

However, perception is reality and NASCAR’s audience perceives these cautions to be bogus, and Hamlin called them on it.

So what can NASCAR do?

When they make the inevitable move to fuel injection they can ensure the drivers have enough throttle response at Daytona and Talladega that they can actually let off the throttle in traffic instead of riding the brakes as they do now. There are other changes, aero changes, that would really help but that is a good first step.

And NASCAR can also do away with the phony debris cautions and still liven up the show. All they need to do is institute, in the rule book so it is there for everyone to see, competition cautions at regular intervals specified at each track. For instance, at superspeedways it could be 100 miles. At short tracks it could be 100 laps. At road courses it could be one-third distance. For example, a competition caution at Bristol would come out only after 100 consecutive green flag laps. The window for a competition caution closes with 50 laps/miles to go. Therefore, if the field goes back to green after a crash with 125 miles left to run at Daytona, there will not be another competition caution since it would come out with 10 laps to go.

All of the possibilities would have to be considered and worked through to make it fair while keeping the race itself entertaining. Old school fans would hate to see the possibility for a caution-free race to go away, but has that come close to happening recently?

At least this way, the teams and fans would both know that if they haven’t seen a caution after a certain number of laps one will be coming out. There will be no conspiracy theories to postulate since the timing of the caution would be mandated by rule. And it might just urge those spotters around the track to only call debris when it is actually seen.