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.

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