EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part one of a two-part series of editorial columns on safer racing penned by former racer and safety advocate R.J. Valentine. Part two will be released through Race Chaser Media on Thursday evening.
Concussion awareness in racing is on the rise, particularly after notable drivers experienced wall-slamming head injuries.
However, very few are addressing the root of the problem – the walls themselves.
Other technologies have advanced, but there remains a blatant blind spot when it comes to track barrier improvements. We keep treating the symptoms without addressing the disease. A recent report about NASCAR and concussions delved deeply into the medical side and discussed prevention methods, but never focused on where the issue begins and ends: at the point of terminal impact.
In the last 18 months, at least 16 more drivers died as a result of concrete walls, Armco guardrails and other outdated barriers. That’s not even counting innumerable concussions, injuries and disabilities. No one officially keeps track of how many people die on track, especially at the nation’s short tracks – which make up the majority of America’s approximately 1300 race venues – so the death toll is most likely much higher.
Sadly, most of these incidences could easily have been prevented if hard impact with a retaining wall or steel guardrail had been buffered by something softer.
The list of concrete-related wall fatalities and Armco barrier deaths dates back at least 60 years. Thirty years ago, used tire packs became the standard barrier or buffer, but tires were designed specifically for cars on roads, not to function as safety barricades for driver protection.
Formula One is considered by some to be a harbinger of technological breakthroughs in auto racing. NASCAR’s embracing of Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) Barrier technology after Indianapolis Motor Speedway first introduced them in 2002, was a major step forward. However, this solution isn’t feasible for most tracks.
Beyond that, little else has changed, and for the better part of a century, the same rigid walls have existed at racetracks worldwide. Shockingly, even brand new state-of-the-art motorsports facilities are installing Stone Age barrier systems.
Why haven’t any of these tragedies, or those before, provoked the motorsports industry to ‘do the right thing’?
The answer is stunningly simple: right or wrong, dangerous or life threatening, the racing world tends to accept the status quo.
Given the rising awareness of football concussions that have sparked unprecedented lawsuits, you’d think upgrading barricade walls to prevent traumatic brain injuries would become paramount. Yet, even racing insiders admit motorsports is reactive versus proactive, and is so fragmented that it’s nearly impossible for safety improvements to be adopted industry-wide.
Football draws about 1.8 million players from youth to professional. Statistics show approximately four to 13 players die each year. Meanwhile, the number of drivers ranges between 50,000 and 400,000, when you include weekend warriors and participants in high performance driving events.
Continued on the next page…