Last year I was working with a team and driver in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at Kansas. On lap 48, we got turned coming off turn four and the truck slammed into the outside wall. The wreck was firewall deep and was one of the hardest hits of the year in NASCAR up to that point.
Luckily, our driver walked away only a little sore from the experience, even though the truck was heading to the scrap yard.
It is really a testament to the safety improvements NASCAR has implemented in response to Dale Earnhardt’s death in the 2001. Same can be said about the wreck this past weekend at the same track involving Joey Logano, Danica Patrick and Aric Almirola. The crash was probably one of the most spectacular I have seen in a long time with Almirola suffering a fractured vertebra. The injury will keep him out of the race car for an indeterminate amount of time.
While safety has come a long way, Almirola’s injury is a stark reminder that the peril of racing still exists.
“Well, I mean, it’s a dangerous sport,” Brad Keselowski told reporters after the race. “Always has been and always will be. Sometimes we forget that and maybe take for granted that you see real hard hits and people walk away, and then you see one where someone doesn’t, and it puts things back into perspective just how dangerous it can be.”
NASCAR has been fortunate that they have not had a fatality from a racing incident since 2001. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for IndyCar, Formula 1 or sprint cars, despite the safety upgrades they have made of late. Caveat: those cars have open cockpits. But NASCAR cannot be complacent about safety, and to their credit, they have not been.
“NASCAR has made really good safety improvements over the past 10, 15 years, and they’re always improving,” said Ryan Blaney, “so they’ll look at that incident and see what they can do better to prevent that from happening ever again.”
But there is no such thing as a safe race car. All the safety innovations, like SAFER barriers HANS devices and mandates on car construction, have done is worked to lessen the degree of danger.
Drivers know this, and, despite their acceptance of the danger of the job they do, it affects them when another driver gets hurt.
“Well, it’s not a good thing, but I mean, it kind of feels a little selfish about how hard it is for me to concentrate when somebody else is hurt. It’s not a good situation,” Keselowski said.
The silver lining behind the injury is in what Blaney said. NASCAR will examine all the data from the wreck and Almirola’s car and use what they learn to make the cars better. Again, not eliminating the danger, but further mitigating it.
One of the other stories to come out of the wreck and Almirola’s injury was Danica Patrick’s interview with Fox’s Jamie Little when she exited the infield care center. Her words have caused a bit of a stir among NASCAR fans about her seeming lack of concern about Almirola.
“I feel absolutely horrible, I just don’t understand why so much bad luck happens,” Patrick said. “I was having a really good night and that’s what makes me most mad. Every time I’m doing better something stupid happens. And it’s just killing me.”
Yeah, maybe a bit selfish considering a fellow competitor was being airlifted to the hospital for an injury. But – and I am no Danica apologist – she was answering a question directly asked of her by a member of the media. And Danica’s involvement in the wreck was extremely bad luck; a part failure on Logano’s car made his car make a sharp right nailing her car.
Could she have handled it better? Absolutely. A quick, “I hope Aric is ok,” would have gone a long way, but in the emotion of the moment (you could tell she had been crying, as had Logano), none of us could say how we would have responded to the question. So I am going to cut her some slack.
Andy Cagle writes a weekly NASCAR column. He can be reacfhed at firstname.lastname@example.org.