In an era of HANS devices, containment seats, impact-absorbing form and computer-generated chassis technology, it is tempting to believe that people don’t get hurt in race cars anymore.
But Saturday night at Kansas Speedway, Aric Almirola reminded us once again that stock car racing remains a dangerous game.
Almirola, driver of the #43 Smithfield Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports, was involved in a multi-car accident on Lap 199 of Saturday night's race, when a broken brake rotor on Joey Logano's car triggered a violent, fiery crash that demolished his car, along with those of Almirola and Danica Patrick. Almirola plowed into Logano's car as it skidded along the outside wall, hard enough to send the rear of Almirola's Ford high into the air.
The RPM driver slid to a stop against the SAFER barrier at the exit of Turn Two, and immediately dropped the window net. He failed to exit the vehicle, however, and safety workers were forced to remove his car’s roof to extricate him safely.
While conscious and alert, Almirola was placed in a cervical collar and removed on a backboard, grimacing in pain. He was transported by ambulance to the speedway’s Infield Care Center, before being airlifted to University of Kansas Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with a fractured T5 vertebra.
He was held overnight for further observation, before returning to his home in North Carolina the following day.
“I’m saying a lot of prayers for Aric right now,” said a visibly shaken Logano afterward. “A lot of us took a hard hit. Something broke on my car. I don't know what it was. I tried to back it off, but you're going 215 (mph) and it's hard to check up. The car just took a big step sideways into the corner and I hooked Danica.
“You can see the right front (tire) popped,” he said. “I just hope everyone is OK. I hope Aric is all right. That's the last thing you want to see, a big hit like that for anyone. It's unfortunate for everyone.”
Patrick was animated and angry after bailing out of her flaming Ford on the track apron, and confronted Logano on their way to the ambulance.
"I told him, `I'm not sure if it was you, but I'm pretty sure it was you,'" she said. "He said it was a failure of some sort, which didn't make me feel better in that moment. I hope Aric is OK. He's definitely feeling the worst of everybody.''
Winner Martin Truex, Jr. also spoke of Almirola in Victory Lane, saying, "He and his wife (are) great people. Just such a nice family and such a nice guy. I was really scared when I saw that and worried for him, obviously. I hope he's doing good."
Runner-up Brad Keselowski spoke for many after the race, saying, "It's a dangerous sport. It always has been and it always will be.
“Sometimes, we take for granted that you see real hard hits and people walk away. Then you see one where someone doesn't, and it puts things back into perspective about just how dangerous it can be."
It has been a long time since NASCAR fans watched in stunned silence as the roof of a race car is peeled back to enable the extrication of its injured driver.
It’s been a long time since we averted our eyes from the action on the track to look skyward as a Life Flight helicopter lifts off from the infield, saying a silent prayer for the injured driver on board.
It’s been a long time since we were reminded that the laws of physics still apply in motorsports; that despite all the carbon fiber and impact absorbing foam, race car drivers remain fragile human beings, susceptible to bruises, burns, broken bones… and worse.
Aric Almirola will be sidelined for a time, giving his broken back sufficient to heal. Someone else will strap into his #43 Smithfield Ford this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, attempting to earn the team a spot in the sport’s annual All Star Race. NASCAR will examine the remains of his battered, beaten race car, hoping to learn how to prevent the type of injury he suffered Saturday from ever happening again.
And in a few days, we will once again begin the process of deceiving ourselves into believing that stock car racing is no longer a violent game.
Until next time.