THE AFTERNOON of qualifying for the Samsung 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 4 began like any other for Michael McDowell. A rookie driver in the Sprint Cup Series, he walked down pit road, and before hopping into his number 00 Toyota, he kissed his wife, Jami. "Good luck," Jami whispered—as she always does. But as the 23-year-old McDowell slid into his car, a loud bang came from the track: The number 38 Ford of David Gilliland had blown its engine on the entry to Turn 1, spraying oil on the asphalt racing surface. The NASCAR safety crew laid down a granular substance known as speedy dry over the oil to absorb as much as possible. After several minutes of cleanup, qualifying resumed.
McDowell—the first driver up after Gilliland—fired his ignition, then rumbled onto the track for his two-lap qualifying run. This was his first time racing at the 1.5-mile oval, and he had struggled in practice, failing to crack the top 20 on the speed chart. But now he was going to push his car to its limit. A part-time Cup driver, McDowell was hoping to land a full-time ride in 2009. This was a chance to impress his team owner, Michael Waltrip.
On his first lap McDowell felt that his car was too tight through Turn 1, meaning that the nose slid up the track as he came through the corner, forcing him to ease off the gas and costing valuable milliseconds. He had driven just below the patch of speedy dry, heading into the turn, but on his next lap he decided to take a wider angle into the corner. This time he would go right over the speedy dry, pushing his car even harder.
Jami was walking back to the garage, where she planned to meet her husband in a few minutes, when she heard what sounded like a bomb exploding in Turn 1. She looked up at a large video screen in the infield. She'd missed Michael's slamming into the wall at 170 mph, but now, to her horror, she saw his crumpled car barrel-rolling in flames down the backstretch. Eight, nine, 10 times the car flipped, all the while shedding sheet metal and broken parts.
"Oh, no!" Jami yelled. She ran to the infield medical center, her heart jackhammering, praying that her husband wasn't going to be the first fatality in NASCAR since Dale Earnhardt was killed at the 2001 Daytona 500. She was so consumed with fear that she couldn't even cry.
RACE DRIVERS pride themselves on their ability to defy death. Part of the allure of going 200 mph with 42 other cars on the track, after all, is the thrill of taking chances where others won't. Ask any driver in the NASCAR garage today if he has ever been scared behind the wheel, if he's ever felt that shadow creeping in, and you'll get laughed at. "Scared? Are you s------- me?" says Dale Earnhardt Jr. "Man, what we do is take chances for a living. It's what we live for. I've been in a hell of a lot of crashes, and never once have I been scared. Plus, the sport is safer now than it's ever been.... I'd like to think my daddy had something to do with that. I'd like to think my daddy has saved lives."
Little E is right, because the story of how driver safety has increased dramatically in NASCAR over the last seven years—and how drivers are now walking away from wrecks that once would almost certainly have been fatal—begins with his father's death at Daytona. (Earnhardt suffered a fatal skull fracture when the right front of his Chevy hit the concrete wall.) A day after losing the sport's biggest star, NASCAR transported Earnhardt's mangled black number 3 Chevy to a storage facility in Hickory, N.C. Over several months, more than 100 people—engineers, college professors, highway safety experts, crew chiefs, drivers—examined every inch of the wrecked car, searching for clues to prevent another fatality.
In the summer of '01, just months after Earnhardt's wreck, NASCAR's top brass held a meeting at a hotel in Washington, D.C., with three of the leading crash experts in the U.S.: Dean Sicking, an engineering professor at Nebraska; Jim Raddin, an MIT-educated biomechanical engineer; and John Melvin, a former safety engineer for General Motors. This brain trust advised NASCAR to devote 65% of its efforts to constructing a better restraint system for the driver, 25% to developing a softer, more energy-absorbent wall, and the last 10% to building a car better able to withstand a crash.
"If not for those experts, we might have concentrated on the front bumper because that was the popular opinion in the industry for what we needed to work on," says Gary Nelson, former vice president of research and development for NASCAR. "But they went against that. After they made their recommendation, we went to work."
And there was plenty to be done. Earnhardt had been the fourth driver to die of a head or neck injury in NASCAR's top three series over the previous 10 months (the others were Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper), evidence that NASCAR's safety record lagged behind those of other racing series. NASCAR didn't even allow crash-data recorders in its cars—which other series did—because it feared that crew chiefs would somehow manipulate the electronic devices to cheat.
But the death of the hugely popular Earnhardt triggered a sea change in NASCAR's approach to safety. The next season NASCAR instituted a number of safety innovations, including mandating crash-data recorders, and in April 2002 ground was broken at the NASCAR Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C., a 61,000-square-foot facility where today 52 people work to improve safety in the sport. Since '02, information on more than 5,000 on-track impacts has been entered in a computer database at the R&D Center and analyzed as if it were evidence from a crime scene. NASCAR also transports every significantly wrecked car to Concord to be examined by specialists. "The things that no one in motor sports thinks about in terms of safety, we have people thinking about," says Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition.
SO FAR the results of the safety push have been impressive: Since Earnhardt's death there hasn't been a fatality in NASCAR's top three series, which is believed to be the longest such stretch in the 59-year history of the organization. How to account for this? Here are the three advances that have made NASCAR the safest professional racing series in the U.S. today:
• The HANS (Head And Neck Support) Device. A year before his fatal accident, Dale Earnhardt referred to the device as "that damn noose" because it restricted head movement and lines of sight. In the '01 Daytona 500 six drivers wore the HANS—a collar made of carbon fiber that has tethers attached to the driver's helmet to keep the head from snapping forward or to the side in a sudden stop—but Earnhardt wasn't one of them. Would the device have saved his life? Most likely, according to several experts interviewed for this story. Eight months after his wreck, NASCAR mandated that its drivers wear the HANS or a similar head and neck restraint.
"Drivers were resistant to wearing [the restraints] at first because they didn't think they could be competitive in them, but we proved that you can," says Brett Bodine, who in 2000 became the first driver to wear the device in the Cup series and is now director of cost research at the R&D Center. "The HANS alone has probably saved several lives."
•The SAFER (Steel And Foam Energy Reduction) barrier. Also known as the soft wall, the SAFER barrier was developed over 3 1/2 years at Nebraska by Sicking. The barrier, which is installed inside the track's existing concrete walls and consists of 22 inches of hard foam and eight inches of steel, acts like a cushion to soften impacts. Designed to absorb energy in a crash, the barriers have been installed at every oval NASCAR's top three series visit. According to Sicking, the duration of impact when a car hits a concrete wall is 80 to 90 milliseconds; with the SAFER barrier that duration is stretched to 160 to 190 milliseconds, basically cutting the g-force of the impact by 40%. "There have been no serious injuries in NASCAR since the SAFER barriers were installed," says Sicking. "It's not a coincidence. Will there be a fatality in the future? Probably. But the frequency will never be the same."
The reality is that racing at 200 mph will never be completely safe and that NASCAR is always just one lap away from its next death. One problem NASCAR still needs to address is that potentially deadly gaps in the SAFER cushioning at gates and other access points remain at some tracks. On March 2, Jeff Gordon plowed head-on into one of these gaps at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The impact was so violent as he hit the concrete wall—"I could feel my organs move," says Gordon—that it was measured to be harder than Earnhardt's fatal hit. Gordon survived thanks to a range of safety advances, including the HANS device and a carbon-fiber seat that's much stronger than the traditional aluminum seat and prevents the driver's body from moving at impact. He was also very lucky to be driving....
•The Car of Tomorrow. After seven years of testing and tinkering with a new car design, NASCAR rolled out the CoT for 16 races in 2007. This season the new car is being used full time, and it boasts several features aimed at protecting the driver: The seat was moved four inches to the right (away from a frequent point of impact); larger "crush zones" (with foam inserts to help dissipate the energy of a crash) were built into the sides; and a rear wing was added to give more downforce, making it easier for a driver to regain control when the back end wiggles. Drivers complain that it's harder to pass in the boxier CoT than it was in the old car, but the consensus in the garage is that the CoT is a safer vehicle. And no one is more vehement about this than Michael McDowell.
"Without the improvements in safety," he says, "I don't know if I'd be here today."
McDOWELL CHARGED into Turn 1 for his second qualifying lap at Texas, and the right rear tire of his Toyota rolled over that patch of speedy dry. His back end lost grip, and the tail of his car slid up the track. Trying to regain control, McDowell turned the steering wheel to the right. The tires bit, and the car went straight into the outer wall, nose-first—an eerie echo of Earnhardt's crash.
That's when the safety features adopted since Earnhardt died went to work. Not only did the SAFER barrier reduce the impact, but the energy-absorbing foam lining the right side of his car also softened the blow. McDowell's HANS device kept his head from snapping forward. His seat didn't move. And as the car tumbled down the track, the CoT's cockpit stayed intact. Aside from getting the wind knocked out of him and suffering a few bruises, McDowell was fine. As soon as the car came to a rest on the backstretch, he lowered his window net—the universal sign that the driver is O.K.
"I feel lucky, really lucky," says McDowell. "And I feel like Dale Earnhardt has saved a lot of lives, maybe even mine."
So this, ultimately, is the legacy of Dale Earnhardt. In death the Intimidator, the Man in Black, became a lifesaver.
"Scared?" says Earnhardt Jr. "What we do is take chances for a living. It's WHAT WE LIVE FOR. Never once have I been scared."
Racing has come a long way from the days of leather helmets and steel guardrails—and the pace of change continues to accelerate. After Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash in 2001, NASCAR worked with scientists and safety experts to identify and prioritize the elements that go into protecting a driver in an accident. Here are three key advances that resulted.
Compared with concrete walls, the Steel And Foam Energy Reduction barriers, also known as soft walls, cut the g-force of an impact by 40%. Martin Truex Jr. (1) was uninjured in this wreck—similar to Earnhardt's—at Talladega in April.
The HANS and similar head-and-neck restraints—developed in the 1980s—were at first shunned by drivers, who felt they were too confining. Now mandatory, the devices, which are worn over the shoulders and are tethered to the helmet, prevent the driver's head from snapping forward or sideways upon impact, greatly reducing serious head trauma.
Dubbed the Car of Tomorrow when NASCAR introduced it in 16 races last season, the newly configured vehicle is the full-time Car of Today. With a beefed-up roll cage, a driver's seat repositioned more toward the center, expanded crush zones and energy-absorbent foam panels lining the sides, the CoT encases the driver in a nearly indestructible cockpit.
JOHN DAVID MERCER/US PRESSWIRE
PAT CROWE II/AP
LIVING PROOF His car (above) was unrecognizable, but McDowell (inset) emerged from his Texas crash unscathed.
[See caption above]
FAMILY MEN Gordon (with daughter Ella) was thankful to have survived a March crash; Junior points to his father's safety legacy.
BLACK SUNDAY The death of Earnhardt (3) led to breakthroughs in everything from head restraints to track-wall cushioning.
MARK J. REBILAS/US PRESSWIRE
NIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK (HANS DEVICE)
NASCAR (CUTAWAY CAR)