Daytona Beach, Florida: A year ago, Kyle Busch bounded across a patch of grass, slammed an unprotected concrete wall at a sharp angle and missed nearly one-third of the NASCAR season as he recovered from a compound fracture in his right leg and more broken bones in his right foot.
Within months, Daytona International Speedway had moved walls, laid asphalt and added Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barriers in places they hadn’t previously expected them to come into play. Other tracks followed suit almost instantly.
Fifteen years ago, seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt lost his life in a crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500. He had become the fourth victim in less than a year and easily the most famous and popular to succumb to a basilar skull fracture, an injury caused by the whipping of a driver’s head and helmet during deceleration.
By 2002, head-and-neck restraints such as the HANS Device became mandatory and the use of SAFER barriers increased exponentially.
Long before either of those, seat belts, fuel cells, window nets, full-face helmets and countless other safety features came into use in response to deficiencies both existing and anticipated.
A year after Busch’s accident and after Sunday’s (Monday in Manila) 58th Daytona 500, this question comes to mind: What’s next?
“If we could look at something and say, ‘That could be safer,’ we’d just make it safer,” said Matt Kenseth, the 2003 NASCAR champion and a two-time Daytona 500 winner. “Unfortunately a lot of times when you learn things need to be safer is after an accident, but then it comes from them being very proactive and going out, taking cars with dummies in them, trying to figure out where’s the next place we can make these cars better.”
Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood 3rd worked at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when the earliest versions of the SAFER barrier were developed. The system of steel and foam covers walls, is more forgiving than concrete and has been the industry standard for a decade.
“There are smart folks out there,” Chitwood said. “You look at NASCAR’s R&D [research and development]center, and having that in house and having the right people there.”
“I’ve been privy to sitting in on some of the safety meetings. They talk about harness belts, they talk about windshields, talk about all sorts of things that I’m not sure gets outside. It’s amazing how much effort goes into it,” he added.
Still, drivers who have strong opinions about safety improvements still typically point to tracks.
Ryan Newman, the 2008 Daytona 500 winner, went for an unforgettable barrel roll in the 2003 race, tumbling through the grass that separates the front stretch from pit road. Newman’s car lifted off the ground while spinning, and when it landed, the right side dug into the grass, leading to him tumbling five and a half times.
Thirteen years later, the area looks essentially the same.
“We need to get rid of the grass, the grass in the tri-oval and the grass at the end of the backstretch,” said Newman, a mechanical engineer as well as a driver. “You saw what Jimmie Johnson did cutting across there [Saturday night in the Sprint Unlimited]. If his nose would have snagged the grass the wrong way, he would have flipped over and could have ended up in the lake or close to it,” Newman said.
“Did he stay safe? Yes. Did he stay off the wall? Yes. Did he rip the nose of his car unnecessarily? Absolutely,” he added.
Daytona added 202,000 square feet of asphalt since last year, most of it in the area where Busch hit in the Xfinity Series. Some grass also was removed in Turn 4 and near the entrance and exit to the pits.
Two-time Daytona 500 winner and Fox TV analyst Michael Waltrip would like to see more. He pointed to the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, and other new Formula One circuits being built, where asphalt is laid everywhere and the non-racing surface is painted.
But the improvement may not be so simple. The grass area helps with drainage, Chitwood has said. Also, NASCAR, which might benefit most from the removal of grass, accounts for only about 10 percent of the time the facility is used. What works best for stock cars might cause significant problems for Supercross motorcycles or bikes and sports cars on the road course.
Busch commended the speedway for the changes since last year but pointed out that drivers always will find new ways and places to crash.
“We’ve seen that over the years, I think most notably maybe Mark Martin at Michigan a couple years ago and getting caught on that inside pit wall,” said Busch, who recovered to win the Sprint Cup title. “It’s just a matter of trying to protect ourselves as well as the race fans and our crew members as best possible.”
Martin slid across the grass, onto pit road and then into the concrete barrier behind the pits at Michigan International Speedway in 2012. That track, like Daytona, does not have a wall between the track and pits.
“There’s a lot of challenges with that, and we’ve seen a lot of tracks had to put an attenuator at the end of the pit wall,” Chitwood said. “If you do that, you create a hard point out there. That’s why you’ve got a lot of safety engineers and people like that that can assist with that.”
While cited less than potential facility enhancements, room for improvement remains within the car. The process is evolutionary.
“We could probably have more of a cockpit style versus just a seat sitting on the chassis,” said Paul Menard, who grew up around Indy-car racing but chose stock cars instead. “I worry more about penetration into the race car.”
“Looking at the crashes at Daytona and Talladega with 20 cars crashing around, I worry more about something coming into the race car than I do the seat bending or my head getting snapped,” he added.
Michael McDowell’s wreck in qualifying at Texas Motor Speedway in 2008 remains both a chilling reminder of the force with that a race car can crash and a testament to safety advances such as SAFER barriers, head restraints and modern seat technology.
McDowell began to spin, overcorrected and slammed the wall at a sharp angle at 185 miles per hour (296 kilometers per hour), then the car skidded on its roof and rolled nine times before he climbed out and walked away.
“I think that the technology is always getting better and better; we have to stay current with that,” he said. “Racing is dangerous. I don’t want to say it’s supposed to be dangerous, but at a certain level, I feel like the reason that some of the guys in our sport are superstars is because not your average Joe is going to go out there and put their neck on the line at 210 mph (336 kph).”