Safety in racing has come a long way since the first green flag dropped. Up until the last few years, NASCAR was heavily criticized for its lack of focus on safety. Many safety precautions were not mandatory, as they are in other racing series, but only optional or recommended. NASCAR changed its stance on this after one of the sport's most popular drivers, Dale Earnhardt, was killed in a racing accident on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Since 2002, no driver has been killed on the track in any of NASCAR's three major series. The greatest testament to the efficacy of the new safety rules was in a spectacular but nonfatal crash during qualifying runs for the 2008 Samsung 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Michael McDowell, in his second Sprint Cup race for Michael Waltrip Racing in his Toyota Car of Tomorrow was in the midst of the second lap of his qualifying run when his car slipped on some loose oil-dry. The oil-dry had been left from the clean up of a previous incident where a qualifier "blew up" his engine between Turns One and Two. Upon hitting the oil-dry, McDowell was sent head first into the SAFER barrier at nearly 180mph. McDowell's car began to flip and roll violently, leaving much of his car in parts on the track. Thanks to the safety precautions, the use of the COT and the SAFER barrier as well as the mandated use of the HANS device, McDowell walked away and raced later that weekend.
The seats that the drivers sit in have evolved over the past few years. Most of the seats found in the race cars wrap around the driver's rib cage which provides some support during a crash, spreading the load out over the entire rib cage instead of letting it concentrate in a smaller area. Some of the newer seats wrap around the driver's shoulders as well, which provides better support because the shoulders are more durable than the rib cage. The introduction of carbon fiber seats have also helped improved safety, as carbon fiber absorbs more energy from an impact than the traditional aluminum seats did.
Seat belts and harnesses
The seat belts in stock cars are very important. They are built to be stronger than a normal seat belt. The seat belts used are the five- or six-point harness, which is two straps coming down over the driver's shoulders, two straps wrap around the waist, and one or two come up between the legs. Since a string of accidents in 2000 and 2001 that killed Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, Tony Roper and Dale Earnhardt under similar circumstances, NASCAR has made it mandatory for the drivers to wear the HANS device. Though NASCAR allowed another system, the Hutchens device, in the past, since 2005 HANS is the only head and neck restraint device allowed for use.
As a safety measure to reduce speeds at the two high-banked superspeedways, restrictor plates are used. There are some tracks, however, where restrictor plates are not mandated and therefore see faster speeds, specifically Atlanta Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway. While Atlanta is generally considered the fastest track, restrictor plates are not mandated there. In 2004 and 2005, higher qualifying speeds were posted at Texas, earning it the title of the circuit's fastest track. Unrestricted, Sprint Cup cars produce over 750 horsepower and can run at speeds in excess of 200 mph. Rusty Wallace completed a 2004 test for NASCAR at Talladega in which he used an unrestricted motor to complete average lap speeds of 221 mph and top speeds near 230 mph.
In 1994, NASCAR introduced roof flaps to the car, which are designed to keep cars from getting airborne and possibly flipping down the track. Following Rusty Wallace's crash at Talladaga, Penske Racing designed the original roof flaps. NASCAR team owner Jack Roush helped improve on the design of the roof flaps, in conjunction with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona, Florida, USA. During spins, as a result of accidents or loss of handling, as the car rotates it eventually reaches an angle where the oncoming air reacts with the profile of the vehicle in the same manner as a wing. If the speed is high enough air flowing over this hydrofoil shape will create sufficient lift to force the car to become airborne. To prevent this, NASCAR developed a set of flaps that are recessed into pockets on the roof of the car. As a car is turned around and reaches an angle where significant lift occurs, the low pressure above the flaps causes them to deploy. The first flap oriented 140 degrees from the centerline of the car typically deploys first. After flap deployment, higher pressure air is forced through an air tube which connects to a second flap, deploying it. This second flap ensures that, should the car continue to spin, no further lift will be created as the vehicles angle changes. The deployment of these flaps eliminates most of the lift on the vehicle. The roof flaps generally keep the cars on the ground as they spin, although it is not guaranteed.
Beginning in the early 2000s, many tracks were retrofitted with SAFER barriers along the walls of the track. These walls absorb the energy of an impact better than concrete walls, while maintaining integrity better than traditional steel barriers. This system costs millions of dollars to put in, and the creation of this wall, which connects to the original wall, took many more millions to design and create.
Pit road safety
Pit road safety has become a major focus of NASCAR officials in recent years since the 1990 Atlanta Journal 500, where the rear tire changer for Melling Racing was killed in a pit road crash.
By April 1991, NASCAR implemented the current policy of pit road speed limits. The speed limit depends on the size of the track and the size of pit road. NASCAR uses an electronic scoring system, similar to the VASCAR system, to monitor the speeds of cars on pit road by measuring the time it takes to get from checkpoint to checkpoint. As the cars are not equipped with speedometers, the cars in prerace warm up laps are driven around the track at the pit road speed following the pace car so the drivers can mark their speed on the tachometer. NASCAR does not allow the use of pit road specific rev limiters as found in most other forms of racing.
Since 2002, NASCAR has implemented a rule where all over the wall pit members are required to wear helmets, no visors needed, full fire suits, and gloves; while the gas man must wear a fire apron as well as the suit. While it is not required yet, it is recommended that tire changers wear safety glasses to prevent eye injuries from lug nuts thrown off the car and fuel spills.
Beginning in 2008, teams in the top three series may not roll a car more than three pit box lengths to push start a car. This prevents teams from pushing a car the length of pit road when the starter motor fails. Also, outside tires that have been removed from a vehicle during a pit stop can no longer be free-rolled from the outside of the pit box to the pit wall; rather, they must be hand-directed to the inner half of the pit box before being released.
In contrast with open-wheel, sports car, and touring car governing bodies, NASCAR does not allow race cars to have wing mirrors. Drivers may still use a rear-view mirror and mirrors attached to the rollbar, but no mirror can extend out side of the car. As a result they are left with large blind spots to cope with. In NASCAR’s more prominent series, spotters are used to combat this problem. The spotter’s purpose is to relay information about where cars in these blind spots are to the driver via two-way radio. Spotters also advise drivers on navigating track-obstructing crashes and may relay messages from one driver to another.
Since a fatal ARCA incident in October 2002, NASCAR has implemented mandatory spotters at all time a car is on the track during all series in practice, qualifying, and the race. In many cases, a spotter is a former drive.