The racing community woke up to some very shocking news Tuesday morning. Three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart broke his right leg in a Sprint Car crash at Southern Iowa Speedway and will miss Watkins Glen. Max Papis has been selected to drive the car in Tony’s absence. Just two days prior, Sprint Car Hall of Famer Kramer Williamson was killed in a crash at Lincoln Speedway; the 7th Sprint Car fatality of this year alone. Deaths like his are a poignant and cruel reminder of just how dangerous racing can be. The sting from the tragic loss of Jason Leffler is still at the forefront of all our minds and these latest incidents have only fueled the fire as people call for immediate action to make Sprint Car racing safer.
There are two kinds of people caught up in this great debate that are doing nothing but making false and inaccurate statements with their bleating comments on social media. You have the ones who believe the proverbial sky is falling and are calling for a ban of the “suicidal” Sprint Cars…those people have little to no knowledge of open-wheel dirt racing and need to stop talking about something they know nothing about. There are also the shortsighted, grass-root race fans who ignorantly deny the dangers and believe that their racing is completely safe. Both contingents refuse to be swayed away from their opinions but fortunately, there are ones that are actually willing to discuss the topic with an open mind and with intelligent remarks.
It’s no secret that Sprint Car racing is among one of the most dangerous forms of professional motorsports out there today but still, they’ve come a long way from what they used to be. I look at Sprint Car racing right now and I see NASCAR back in the late 90’s. NASCAR was frequently losing drivers and mourned their losses but failed to do anything to prevent future tragedy’s. We watched and endured as John Nemechek, Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr. and Tony Roper perished due to people who were too close to the forest to see the trees. We were set in our ways and just accepted death as a tragic part of racing without asking the tough questions that could have saved lives.
Then Dale Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 and everything changed. No longer would death be tolerated or an acceptable occurrence. One fatality suddenly became one too many for the racing community and NASCAR decided to act. They were fought every step of the way though by the very drivers they set out to protect. Racers did not like the HANS device and containment seats because they limited their movement and vision. The resistance of the new safety devices eventually ceased and everyone started to embrace the new technology. Not a single national touring driver has died in a NASCAR race since that dark day in Daytona.
USAC and World of Outlaws now face the same challenge that NASCAR did 12 years ago. They must protect these drivers and also satisfy the needs of these daredevils who will be whipping these cars around dirt tracks across the United States for years to come. After we lost Jason Leffler, serious talks began behind closed doors as the men in charge discussed how they can refine their protocols regarding safety. Now that we are burying a Sprint Car legend and a NASCAR superstar has been injured; those talks are becoming much more serious and a bit more incensed. Warnings and theories do not resonate with us like they should but death and injuries do because that unfortunately gives credence to the warnings that we just didn’t want to believe.
There is a great disparity between NASCAR and its open-wheel brethren in regards to safety. Once you get past all the bleating comments, disregard the people who say these cars are innocuous and stop calling for imprudent decisions with remarks backed by beleaguered feelings; one obvious fact becomes clear. The technology to make these cars and the racing safer already exists; it simply needs to be implemented and it will be. Open-wheel dirt racing is on the brink of a new era of safety innovations that will save countless lives and change the landscape of the sport forever.
With these improvements in safety, death will quickly become a stranger who rarely crosses our path instead of a frequent visitor whose presence is awaited with intense trepidation. Death will always return though whether we want it to or not; you can’t run away from it but we can definitely hinder its progress. No matter how many more friends we lose; be assured that these brave men and women will never give up their passion. Racing isn’t a hobby; it’s something that is embedded deep within the DNA of racers and the desire to race supersedes every other emotion including the fear of death itself. We bury the fallen with tears, embrace the ones who escape death’s firm and final grip with relief and race on because that’s what racers do.