Is Stockcar Racing the Safest Form of Motorsports?

None of NASCAR’s three national series have had a driver die in an on-track incident since the 2001 death of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. And that’s despite some pretty spectacular accidents.

We all wondered if we were about to repeat 2001 all over again when Ryan Newman crashed at the Daytona 500 this year. Then he walked out of the hospital 48 hours later.

So has NASCAR solved the safety problem in stockcar racing?

A Note About the Numbers

It’s hard to get reliable statistics on the numbers of deaths at racing tracks. The problem worsens as you move from professional series to Saturday-night racers.

These aren’t numbers any track — or any series — wants to publicize. So the numbers here are probably underestimates.

The Numbers

Death was once considered an inevitable part of auto racing. The numbers tell that story. Here are statistics from Wikipedia on deaths in different types of auto racing.

A column graph of the number of deaths in different forms of auto racing

This graph comes with some caveats. The first sportscar death on the list comes in 1903, and the first open-wheel death in 1909 (at Indianapolis). NASCAR didn’t even exist until 1948. So you could argue that we should multiply NASCAR’s numbers by something on the order of two to account for the shorter time.

However, NASCAR runs more races and longer races. For example: In 2019, 36 IndyCar drivers drove a total of 87,329 miles. In the same year, 64 NASCAR drivers drove a total of 500,830 miles. So if you were to normalize this by miles run, I think NASCAR still has a much lower incidence of death than open-wheel racing over all time.

Deaths by Year

The early days of motorsport were nothing like today – thankfully. So I’ve broken down the data by year. I’ve included the deaths of non-drivers due to on-track accidents. This includes spectators, team members and emergency personnel.

The numbers are admittedly small, especially when you compare them to the number of people killed every year in passenger car accidents. In 2018, 36,560 people died in traffic accidents in the U.S.

But motorsports is a best-case situation: competent drivers whose entire focus is on the road. We know they aren’t texting or talking on the phone, or dealing with fighting kids in the backseat. (Or applying makeup.)

IndyCar

Open-wheel racing is inherently more dangerous than stock car racing as long as the cockpits are open. Here’s the Indycar (including CART, AAA, USAC, etc.) deaths by year.

Death in IndyCar by Year
Note that in the first year, it was as dangerous to be watching the race as it was to be driving!

U.S. open-wheel racing had a pretty consistent string of deaths all the way up to the 1970s. Indianapolis Motor Speedway, IndyCar’s headquarters track, holds the record in the U.S. for most deaths with 57. The next most-deadly track in the U.S. is Daytona International Speedway with 24.

The other big blip on the IndyCar record was the deaths of six spectators in 1998-1999 when wheels at Michigan International Speedway and Charlotte (then Lowe’s Motor Speedway) flew into the stands.

But even with IndyCar’s continuous efforts to improve safety, their last driver death was in 2015. Justin Wilson died after being hit by debris from another car. IndyCar’s new halo should prevent exactly that kind of accident. Last week’s test of the device at Iowa was very encouraging,

NASCAR

Let’s compare that with the deaths by year for the NASCAR national series (Cup, XFINITY and Truck) and the regional touring series. I’ve broken this data down by deaths in the three national series (in red) and in the regional touring series (in green).

Death in NASCAR by year

It’s impossible to make racing 100% safe. It is an inherently dangerous sport. But the pattern of deaths over the years is interesting because this problem didn’t go away gradually. Five drivers died in a single year as recently as 1994.

The wake-up call for NASCAR was the deaths of four drivers in 2000-2001, starting with Adam Petty and ending with Earnhardt. I argued recently that, as maligned at the Car of Tomorrow was, it saved lives. You can fix ugly.

By Decade

Since the numbers are small, I looked at the data by decade to smooth out year-to-year variations.

Driver Deaths in NASCAR and IndyCar by decade

You can see from this graph that, starting in the 1950’s, deaths have been going down.

But something else should stand out to you. Look at the green line that represents regional series. It took a lot longer to go down than the other ones.

Driver deaths in NASCAR by decade

If you follow deaths in the three main national series (everything not green) across, you see a fairly constant level of deaths per decade until you reach the 2000s. NASCAR’s last on-track driver death was in 2001. The last death in regional touring series was in Mexico in 2009.

There hasn’t been a death in regional touring series since then, but the data point to a larger problem when we talk about ‘Stockcar racing’.

Safety and the Trickle-Down Effect

NASCAR pioneered stockcar safety efforts. They had an immediate effect on the top three series. All tracks now have SAFER barriers. All drivers use six-point harnesses and head-and-neck restraints. NASCAR ultimately put everything they’d learned into the CoT and everything they learned from the CoT into the Gen-6 car.

But it took almost a decade before what is hopefully the last death in a regional series. And safety still hasn’t filtered down to the average guy-and-gal Saturday-night racers.

Just two weeks ago, 11-time track champion Shawn Balluzzo died in a modified race at Langley Speedway. His car went over the hood of another and hit the Turn-2 wall at about 70 mph. It’s not hard to find other examples of deaths at small tracks. It happens all too frequently.

If We Know So Much…

Steve Peterson was the Technical Director of the NASCAR R&D Center until his unexpected death on July 15th, 2008. He played a critical part in NASCAR’s safety initiatives. I met him on a frigid day in Lincoln during a SAFER barrier test. While the rest of us huddled on the ground, Steve had climbed onto the top of a container to brave the freezing Nebraska wind. He wanted the best view of the test he could get.

It was one of Peterson’s life’s missions to ensure that every racer had access to the same kind of safety that NASCAR stars had. He opened my eyes to the fact that it’s harder to make racing at smaller tracks safe. I should also mention here Randy LaJoie, who has the same almost missionary zeal for driver safety.

You might argue that, since we’ve figure out how to keep NASCAR drivers alive, we know everything we need to know about safety. But that’s not quite true. What we haven’t figured out is how to bring the costs down.

Racing is expensive. Even at the starting level. Here’s the stockcar safety page from Speedway Motors.

Speedway Motors stock car safety page

Driver Gear

You’ve got your fire-retardant suit, shoes, gloves, headsock and underwear. Then your head-and-neck restraint and your helmet. The car has to have fire extinguishers, padding and netting, a seat, and harnesses. (Fresh, cool air is a luxury most non-professional drivers can’t afford.)

An entry-level kit for a kid in quarter midgets (helmet, SFI 3.2/1 proban suit, gloves and shoes) runs about $350. And how long will that fit a fast-grown pre-tween? If you want a head-and-neck restraint, that’ll cost you another $300–$400. (Also: compare the cost of getting into racing with that of getting into, say, basketball or soccer.)

It’s even more expensive for adults. You’re looking at $1000 easy. And if you’re a driver, you’re weighing the small probability you have a serious accident against putting your money into a new set of tires or shocks so that you can win races.

Tracks

Speedway Motors youth racing kit

Even if you have quality personal safety equipment, as I’m sure Shawn Balluzzo did, there’s still track safety. This is meant in no way to blame tracks. Running a track is a major economic challenge. Balluzzo’s death was only the second death in 55 years at Langley Speedway.

Even in places where SAFER barriers are logistically feasible, they are prohibitively expensive. In 2005, Kentucky Speedway spent a million dollars to put SAFER Barriers on the inside concrete retaining walls from Turns 1-2 and Turns 3-4.

Work Remains

There are two areas that need work to make lower-level racing just as safe as professional racing.

One is changing the culture. I was surprised by a video from 2001 of Jeff Burton saying that he would never use a HANS device. He argues that, if there was a fire, there was no way he’d be able to get out of the car. (To be fair, I went through a phase where I thought wearing seatbelts was dumb, too.)

If you asked a NASCAR driver today to race without a head-and-neck restraint, he’d think you were nuts. It’s part of the culture because NASCAR made rules that changed the culture. They required tracks that want to host NASCAR races to have SAFER barriers. Sanctioning bodies and tracks can play a major role in improving safety.

The second issue is more challenging. We still haven’t figured out how to make safety affordable for non-professional drivers. The prices of things like HANS devices have come down over time, but not far enough. It’s a small market unless safety equipment is mandated.

A lot of the industry effort aims at the top levels because professional drivers can pay for safety equipment. Ryan Newman had been wearing a new type of helmet at Daytona, from a Japanese company called Arai.

CORRECTION: Although multiple media sources reported that Newman’s helmet was an Arai, Trevor Ashline, Vice President of Engineering and Product Development at Simpson Performance Products tells me it was actually a Stilo 8860, which is the Stilo-manufactured Formula 1-certified version of the Arai I originally mentioned. (With the same price tag.)

I don’t know exactly which Arai model Newman wore, but their top-of-the-line model, which meets the FIA specs implemented after Felipe Massa was hit in the head with a spring from another car, costs almost $4,000 dollars.

A photo of the top-of-the-line Arai helmet

Equal effort needs to be put on the other side of the equation: Making quality safety equipment at more affordable prices, including track barriers.

Bonus: Dirt Track Safety

Shawn Walters writes for racingnews.co and has penned a number of very informative columns about dirt track safety.

Walters notes that there are unique safety challenges in running high power-to-weight ratio cars like Sprint cars. If you look at the stats, that’s one of the main professional racing series where drivers are still dying with unfortunate regularity.

Recent deaths (since 2010) in a couple different motorsports

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.