On the right is a knee-jerk reactionary group calling for immediate changes to (or an outright ban of) Sprint Car racing, despite having little or no knowledge of the topic at hand.
On the left are the embattled Sprint Car fans who myopically insist there is nothing wrong with the sport and no possible way to make it safer.
Both camps do an immeasurable disservice to the debate.
When NASCAR driver Jason Leffler died in a Sprint Car crash on June 12 of this year, it re-ignited a long running debate over the safety of Open Wheel dirt track racing, and whether big-time NASCAR drivers should be allowed to take part. Sadly, most of those doing the talking seem to know very little about the sport, having spent most of their lives in the NASCAR garage, watching an occasional Sprint Car race on television.
I place myself in that category, and as a result, have had nothing to say about the safety (or lack thereof) in Sprint Car racing. Others with a better knowledge base, however, have been working quietly behind the scenes to implement substantive and lifesaving changes.
When drivers Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, Jr. and Tony Roper died in separate on-track crashes in 2000, NASCAR mourned their loss. But not until its greatest icon, Dale Earnhardt, lost his life on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 was the sport finally spurred to serious action. Head and neck restraints, containment seats, impact-absorbing door inserts and SAFER barriers were developed and implemented, almost certainly saving lives in the decade that followed.
Leffler’s death -- and that of Open Wheel veteran Kramer Williamson in a qualifying race at Pennsylvania’s Lincoln Speedway Sunday – set the stage for a much-needed debate in the Sprint Car community. Stewart’s injury, much like Earnhardt’s death in 2001, will push that debate to the front burner.
Like NASCAR in 2001, change in Sprint Car racing will not be instantaneous. Many NASCAR drivers (ironically, Stewart among them) resisted HANS devices and containment seats at first, saying they compromised their movement and visibility. NASCAR drew a line in the sand, however, mandating the new technology, like it or not. And eventually, drivers embraced those changes.
In the weeks to come, some Open Wheel dirt drivers may also resist efforts to change their sport in the interest of safety. In the end, though, the short-sighted, “there’s nothing wrong with us” crowd will eventually – if grudgingly -- give way to inevitable progress, just as their NASCAR brethren did.
The people who know and love Sprint Car racing best will make whatever changes are prudent and necessary to make their sport as safe as it can reasonably be. Those close to the sport say a major push is already underway to implement containment seating in Sprint Cars, even as new parts are being manufactured to prevent the type of mechanical failure that caused Leffler’s fatal crash.
That is good news, despite its terribly high price.