Would SAFER barriers have saved Dale Earnhardt’s Life?

thumbnail.jpgBy Katie Hall The sense of community and belonging that resides in Goochland, Va. is unlike anything else in the world. Time always seems to go by a little slower, making life so much easier. Many believe that the “hussle and bussle” of the city is not the life for them and if you believe that, then Goochland is the place for you. If you’re not present at the Friday night football game sitting in the stands cheering on the Bulldogs with your old high school friends or sitting in the church pew on Sunday morning, expect to be questioned. Families in my town carry on many traditions that they hold dear to their hearts. In my family, Sunday’s are reserved for two very important traditions: Jesus and NASCAR. Ever since I can remember, my dad and grandfather would have their friends over after church on Sundays for lunch and to watch their favorite NASCAR driver race around the track. Sunday afternoons wouldn’t be complete without a NASCAR party and lunch from the local Hardee’s down the road. NASCAR was one of the many things that brought our small town together. The sense of community and belonging that exists in Goochland County is parallel to what is felt within the NASCAR community, especially during the death of a legend, Dale Earnhardt. His death occurred when he crashed into the wall after making contact with a fellow driver, Ken Schrader. Earnhardt was officially pronounced dead at the nearby Halifax Medical Center at 5:16 p.m. Fox News (changed sports to news) called the day he died “The Dark Day Dale Earnhardt Made Time Stand Still at Daytona.” If SAFER barriers were used in NASCAR sooner, would Dale Earnhardt still be alive today?

With the organization’s founding in 1948, NASCAR has become one of the most popular sports that occur in more than 30 U.S. states, Mexico, Europe, and Canada. NASCAR, also known as the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, is a family business with the need for speed that authorizes auto- racing sports events. Over 60 years ago Bill France, Sr. founded this company and his grandson, Brian France, took the lead in 2003 by becoming their CEO. William “Bill” France  was a mechanic and auto-repair shop owner from Washington, D.C. and quickly began getting involved in racing cars and promoting races. According to an article from Forbes in 2012, NASCAR falls second to the National Football League in terms of television ratings in the United States. Drivers can start out as children with a passion for kart racing and can end up pursuing their passion for years to come, with many driving professionally well in their 40s or 50s.

Just like any other sport, fans form a strong bond with their respective NASCAR athlete, however this bond is stronger. Why is it stronger? Well unlike other major sports that are bound to cities, NASCAR is tied to various sponsors. NASCAR fans support their favorite drivers so they hold loyalty to their sponsors.

NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series: Mountain Dew 250Being around NASCAR, you see examples of fans supporting sponsors on a daily basis. There is actual research to back this up. Popular Speed web page (a website about NASCAR and the coverage driven by social media) presents a study done by Performance Research found in a sample of over 1,000 NASCAR fans that 57% had a higher trust in products offered by NASCAR sponsors. Also, Performance Research found that 71% of fans say they “Almost always” or “Frequently” choose a product sponsored in NASCAR than those that are not.

dale-sr-jpgDale Earnhardt began racing at the early age of fifteen. Earnhardt’s success wasn’t hard to see. He was quickly signed to his first full- time Winston Cup contract in 1979. His success continued years later in 1987 when he won 11 races and a third championship title, finishing in the top five in 21 out of 29 races. He broke many records during his career in stock car racing and even tied with the legendary Richard Petty for the most career titles. He earned over $3 million and was known as the “Intimidator.” NASCAR was changed forever on February 18, 2001. During the last- lap of the Daytona 500 fifteen years ago, a legend, “the intimidator” was involved in a tragic accident. The Daytona 500 is the first race of the season and could be compared to the Superbowl in the NFL. Forbes even referring this race to Mardi Gras stating, “Daytona was never more alive and vibrant than it was in 2001. It was like Mardi Gras at 200 miles per hour.”

The death of Dale Earnhardt accelerated NASCAR’s safety precautions. Something had to be done to prevent something like this from ever happening again. A safety expert and NASCAR consultant Dr. John Melvin stated, “Without any changes, drivers would still be dying in NASCAR,” Melvin says. “But I don’t think we’d be seeing NASCAR right now, quite frankly. I think Congress would have gotten involved at some point.” What were these changes exactly? SAFER, which stands for Steel and Foam Energy Reduction, barriers were jumpstarted into development a year after Earnhardt’s death by the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. These barriers started out at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and in 2006, every oval track that hosted an IndyCar or NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race had SAFER barriers installed. (The first picture below demonstrates the non- SAFE barriers while the second picture demonstrates the SAFE barriers.)



Daytona Speedweeks

How does SAFER barriers save lives of professional drivers? This system works as an energy absorber. It forms an impact plate by containing a steel outer skin with steel tubes welded on top of one another.Print There is also plastic foam behind the steel skin to help absorb the strong force of impact. The SAFER barrier we know today was put to the ultimate test at the 2002 Indianapolis 500. During the first day of practice, Robby McGehee slammed into the barrier and, fortunately, the SAFER barrier was successful in protecting McGehee. He walked away from that accident with just a minor limp. Since the invention of this design, it has worked very well. Multiple racetracks have agreed to add SAFER barriers in order to protect their drivers. An example of this was back in March 2008. Jeff Gordon rammed into the inside wall of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, harming his back and speaking out against the wall not being a SAFER barrier. The next time the race was in Vegas, SAFER barriers were placed on the track

2010 IRL IndyCar Spring Testing Portrait

Driver Ryan Briscoe stated his love for the SAFER barriers by saying, “It’s clear that the SAFER Barrier is the huge step forward in the world of safety, especially in the oval racing. It’s definitely a good thing, and I’m glad we have it.” The SAFER barriers have saved lives there is no question about that. The technology that we have available today is a wonderful thing. We should continue to take advantage of these various safety measures. If these barriers were installed just a year earlier, would Earnhardt be alive today?

No one here on earth has the exact answer to that question, but what we do know is Elliot Sadler’s crash in 2011 was nearly twice as intense as Dale Earnhardt’s however, Sadler took advantage of the new safety features created after Earnhardt’s death and survived the accident. Five factors including, the HANS device, SAFER barriers, Car of Tomorrow, carbon fiber seats and six-point safety harnesses have contributed to keeping the most drivers alive. There is no doubt that his death led to many safety measures in the sport of NASCAR. He has helped save the lives of many of his fellow racecar drivers and will make an impact in racing and the lives of many people for years to come. Starting on the tenth anniversary of his death, the Daytona International Speedway created a moment of silence  on the third lap of the Daytona 500 as a tribute for the legend. During the lap of silence, fans stand and raise three fingers for Dale. (Fans showing their Earnhardt support pictured below.)THREEAlso, the number three is always painted into the grass at Daytona the Saturday night before the big season- opening. Although he is gone, he is never forgotten. His son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is also a NASCAR driver and plans to make his father proud. A tweet he published from the 14th anniversary of his father’s death (February 18, 2015) states “On this day I do not mourn his death. I thank God he lived. #DaleEarnhardt.” The tributes to Dale that are still shown today are proof that his legacy will live on forever, years after his passing.


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