On Aug. 11, a day after Sam Hornish Jr. was involved in a horrific-looking crash at Watkins Glen International, he was moving furniture at his North Carolina home.
And when a new No. 77 Dodge was unloaded a couple of days later for the race at Michigan International Speedway, he went behind the wheel without any second-guessing.
Race drivers are known for ignoring danger, but the safety improvements in NASCAR in the past eight years have helped them walk away from bad crashes without trepidation.
When it comes to safety, the Car of Tomorrow has been everything NASCAR promised. The seat was moved more toward the middle of the cockpit, and the doors are lined with energy-absorbing foam. Drivers made adjustments to keep their arms and legs from flailing during an accident, and racetracks added energy-reducing barriers. The head-and-neck support collars have kept anyone from suffering neck injuries since the collars were mandated, shortly after Dale Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
While nobody admits to being bulletproof, most drivers said the cars are so comfortable, it’s easier for them to take bigger risks without fear of getting hurt.
“It does make it nice to know that you have an ace in your sleeve, knowing that safety is on your side,” Kurt Busch said.
At Watkins Glen, Hornish’s car slammed into the outside tire barrier, sending it into a spin. It was struck by Jeff Gordon’s car, sending Hornish’s car into another spin. Both cars were destroyed, but the drivers walked away with only bruises.
“That was probably pretty close to it, as far as the worst hit I’ve taken in a stock car. But some of the smaller IndyCar stuff hurt a lot more the next day than what that did,” Hornish said. “The IndyCars were going about 50 mph faster, and you were just pulling so many more Gs. But that definitely was a lot bigger hit than I want to take again anytime soon.”
Gordon said the improvements in safety created a higher level of comfort and confidence inside the car.
“You know, it’s just weird because in the old days with the older car, I worried way more about my neck and head injuries than anything else,” Gordon said. “I think what has happened is that we have gotten better with the technology of the seats and the belts and how we are strapped in the car. It has created new areas in the car that we have to focus on … You start to narrow down the weaker links, and right now, the weakest link is that midsection, and we don’t have a way of isolating that area.”
Points leader Tony Stewart, who said last year he’s willing to win the Daytona 500 on his roof and on fire, isn’t convinced that enhanced safety is making drivers more daring. He said the new car is so evenly matched from team to team that it forces drivers to take more chances to gain an advantage.
“I think they still like [that] we were talking about the competition level being tighter than it’s ever been. I think that forces guys into doing things they wouldn’t normally have done in the past,” Stewart said.
Stewart said he has a greater comfort level inside the car.
“I feel safer in the car than I did 10 years ago, for sure,” Stewart said. “The carbon seat that I’m in now, none of that was even available 10 years ago. That’s one area that, obviously, we’re all very thankful. The sponsors are thankful. The fans are thankful because they don’t want to see their drivers that they pull for every week getting hurt.”
NASCAR overhauled its attitude about safety shortly after Earnhardt’s death. Some of the changes came quickly. Others, such as the Car of Tomorrow, took years – and millions of dollars – to complete. No driver in the Camping World Truck, Nationwide or Sprint Cup series has been killed since Earnhardt’s fatal crash more than eight years ago.
“You always hate to wreck. You always hate to put your body through what’s involved,” Busch said. “You can find a weak link in something somewhere and get hurt, but we don’t wish that upon anybody.
“You can feel more confident in your equipment and your safety that you can go out there and see such a violent wreck, or be a part of one, and jump back in your car knowing, ‘Hey, you’re not going to have that many bad wrecks.’ We’re a bunch of crazy guys. We’re a bunch of hard-headed individuals, and we’re going to go out there and race to win and not be afraid of the fear.
“We’re more afraid of being failures than we are the fear of crashing.”