Tuesday, August 06, 2013

COMMENTARY: An Appeal For Calm On The Sprint Car Front

Less than 12 hours after former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart was injured in a Sprint Car crash at Southern Iowa Speedway, it appears that most of the conversation is emanating from the far extremes. 

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.


  1. Anonymous2:52 PM

    Get rid of the tires encircling the track! These cause more wrecks than any other on the tracks. They don't need to be there. See any at the Chili Bowl?

  2. I agree that a measured response makes sense. There are probably some good ideas out there to improve the safety of the sport w/o turning it into something completely different from what it is.

  3. woodwrkr4:13 PM

    Good commentary Dave, as always.

  4. Anonymous6:50 AM

    My husband owns his own business..successful..many rely on him for their livelihood..he also is a huge Harley man. I have to think my husband is in far more jeopardy then Sprint car drivers... Yet he rides on...it's his passion...and without it he wouldn't be the same person....would Stewart??

  5. Anonymous11:39 AM

    As a former sprint car team owner, I have to say that at times I felt that there could be better safety programs, more along the lines of making certain that the response teams (ambulance, EMT Rescue truck) personnel are well trained. Our car was once used to help demonstrate extraction techniques at a local track. We took the stance that we would pay for & do whatever was necessary to make certain that our car was the safest it could be, whether it was something on the car itself or the driver. Safety was #1. Are there things that some tracks could do - Maybe. HOWEVER, this is NOT NASCAR. Our local tracks have been around since the 30's & 40's. Yes, they should be up-to-date & for the most part, they are. The only thing that I would like to see is for the huge tires to disappear. They are a problem for sure; they usually launch the cars that hit them. I know that 3 of the 4 tracks here are continuously stepping up their programs & tracks. I don't go to the 358 track, so I don't know. You have to understand, these races consist of a few hot laps per division; several (3-4) qualifying 8-10 lap heat races, an 8-10 of 12 lap B Main and a 25-30 lap A Main. The intensity of the last 20 laps at Daytona or Talladega is what 410 sprint car dirt track events are from start to finish.

  6. It's always good to get a different set of eyes to look at things. Left to their own devices, NASCAR wasn't implementing any big safety chances on it's own. Every group has a certain amount of "inertia" in it, and Sprint car racing is no different.

    I'm sure there are a few changes that could be made to the cars, however a bigger focus needs to be made on the tracks where sprint cars race.

    As long as sprint cars race on dirt, and require a high center of gravity to race, they are going to flip - it doesn't matter if they have a wing on them or not, a sprint cars on a dirt track are susceptible to flipping.

    Tony also needs to be a little bit smarter about who he is racing against too. I don't know of too many people who would think it's a good idea for Cup guys to be banging fenders in some local street stock class. The same goes for sprint cars. There is a big difference in talent and equipment running with the WoO vs a 360 series.

    For the stakes and level of commitment Tony's sponsors and partners have in his Cup team, he needs to give their expectations a little more consideration.

    And lastly, Tony's mere mortal comment makes him look like a total ass right about now.

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