When a friend calls you up and says “I’ve got free Bristol NASCAR tickets for the night race in Turn 2 and I’m driving, come on”—you first pinch yourself and then just like a school kid you declare him your best friend ever as you thank the heavens above!
Not growing up a NASCAR fan, instead I had to spend a couple of years of my adulthood living in Indianapolis watching the local news channels leading the sportscast with racing news to become indoctrinated into the racing world.
As a Loss Prevention and Safety consultant attending such a dangerous event should go against my very being. By its very nature, racing is an inherently very dangerous sport.
But let’s be honest, if racing was 100% safe, the sport probably wouldn’t even exist. The element of risk, speed, skill, competition and color are what brings us to watch. Even Bristol Speedway recently gave into fan pressure and changed the track surface back to encourage a little bit more bumping and grinding, i.e …more accidents.
As a safety conscious fan attending the Bristol, Tenn., race, you quickly noticed the event is just dripping with safety hazards. When you arrive you notice the buzz of over a hundred thousand plus tailgating fans, many of whom are cooking with propane tanks or on open camp fires, while risking potential food-poisoning, sun-poisoning and, yes, alcohol poisoning.
After a full day of tailgating as you walk to the track dodging vehicles, buses, RV’s, shuttle carts and a handful of over-hyped alcohol-toting rednecks to reach the Mecca of the racing-world. Upon entering the world’s largest amphitheatre you are amazed of the enormity of the size of the Bristol Motor Speedway, as it is the 4th largest sports venue in America and the 8th largest in the world, accommodating up to 165,000 people. You quickly realize how complex their disaster plan would be and the planning that goes into it.
As the race begins the noise becomes deafening as the sound of forty-three 800-horsepower monsters and 165,000 screaming fans make it nearly impossible to carry on a conversation with the person sitting next to you. For safety, hearing protection is obviously required but many choose to go without. To put this in perspective, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a person can listen to a 90 decibel (dB) sound for 8 hours straight without any hearing damage. Adding just a few decibels decreases that safe time dramatically. At 115 dB you can only listen safely for 15 minutes before you start to experience hearing damage. A NASCAR race car at full throttle measures out at approximately 130 dB. That is just one car.
Then there is the question of the quality of the air you are breathing, as there is the smell of exhaust and burning rubber — nauseating to some, but for others intoxicating. But then again that may also have something to do with the fact that NASCAR allows their fans to carry their own coolers of alcohol into the speedway (no bottles).
With 43 cars in such a tight space driving at a high rate of speed, contact is inevitable at Bristol Speedway. That’s what makes it so exciting. Driver safety becomes a bit of an oxymoron as it’s a race that always has the NASCAR season’s highest number of yellow-flag caution laps, as the cars bump and grind, trading paint, as they jockey for track position. Tempers flare and episodes of road rage soon become part of the show.
The race pits are simply accidents waiting to happen as another 43 over-the-wall six-man pit crew teams risk their lives multiple times during the course of the race as cars go whizzing by sometimes within inches of these crew-members.
At the speeds these race cars go, vehicle parts can fly a pretty far distance when a wreck occurs. To the fans sitting in the stands watching, this could create a pretty scary situation in a blink of an eye, and even though NASCAR has raised the raceway fences and introduced tougher and stronger fences, accidents still occur though less frequency.
The most unexpected flying safety hazard of the evening came just after lap 332 when I witnessed a flying object (helmet), go bouncing off the front end of Matt Kenseth’s car, as Tony Stewart tossed it at him in retaliation for being wrecked while battling for the lead on the front straightaway.
With all the hazards present during such an event, the truth is that if there is ever a sport that truly cares about the safety of its fans and its competitors, it is no doubt NASCAR. When you compare the safety features in today’s modern Sprint Cup car with those of its predecessors, it is night and day. The cars in that first Stock Car race at Charlotte Speedway in 1949 were not even required to even have roll bars or seat belts.
It has taken years for the sport to evolve towards safety. It met with resistance all along the way, as many want to keep in the element of danger for the sake of entertainment. It took the death of a NASCAR legend, Dale Earnhardt, in 2001 to kick-start the high-tech safety revolution in this sport.
Most of the safety advances in NASCAR have come as the result of regrettable tragic consequences. Five-point safety harnesses, fuel cells, restrictor plates, on-board fire extinguishers, purpose-built racing seats, pit-crew speed limits, soft wall technology and head and neck restraints were all solutions to dangers exposed by a severe accident. Some of the most recent safety improvements included moving the driver’s seat closer to the center of the car, enlarging the cockpit area and adding crushable material in the doorframes.
When you look back at the history of the sport it can be defined by safety improvements made during the different era of the sport. In the 70’s window netting became mandatory. In the ’60s roll cages were introduced. In the ’50s, it was roll bars and in the 40’s, it was the crash helmet which was a hardhat attached over the ears and under the chin with a leather straps. Today full-faced safety helmets and fire retardant uniforms must be worn by the driver and the pit crews .
Like many companies today, the racing industry as a whole has traditionally been resistant to change as it relates to safety. But as it has evolved and with the addition of these multimillion-dollar corporations that are spending lots of money on a enormously growing enterprise, investors want to make sure their money is safe.
What makes NASCAR so exciting is the unexpected, like the drunk who barely missed me when he came rolling down the hill outside the Bristol Speedway at the conclusion of the race. But as a safety consultant I feel compelled to sacrifice my time and energy to volunteer my services to ensure that safety becomes a priority to all those fans, competitors and NASCAR officials. It’s a tough gig, but somebody has to do it!
Keven Moore is director of Risk Management Services for Roeding Insurance (www.roedinginsurance.com). He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both the Lexington and Northern Kentucky offices. Keven can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.