JG Online


'A Matter Of Life And Death'
Fall 2001

For the fifth time in less than seventeen months, a driver was killed after an impact with a concrete wall on a stock car track. Each incident produced different responses by the competitors, fans, and racing media. The latest casualty was Blaise Alexander, a 25-year-old up and coming driver from Pennsylvania. Alexander was killed after a head-on impact with the frontstretch wall in the closing laps of an ARCA race at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin were killed in separate, but eerily similar, incidents at the New Hampshire International Speedway in 2000. Both cars went into turn three and impacted the wall with the right front. Stuck throttles were blamed in both cases and engine kill switches became the hot topic. A few months later Tony Roper was killed in a Craftsman Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway. Roper made a move to pass another truck on the frontstretch when his truck made contact and veered hard to the right and head-on into the wall. While all tragic events, the reverberations on the stock car racing community from those three wrecks paled in comparison to February 18, 2001.

Dale Earnhardt, perhaps the most famous driver in stock car racing, was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500 when his car caught the track apron and veered up the track. Earnhardt hit the wall leading with the right front of his car at approximately 160 miles per hour. NASCAR conducted an extensive investigation of Earnhardt's wreck in which they commissioned two experts in the field of biomechanics. The experts concluded that a seat belt failure played a role in Earnhardt's death. Though no such study has been done on the crashes that claimed the lives of Petty, Irwin, and Roper.

In September 2000 only one Winston Cup driver raced with a head and neck support system. One year later, 42 out of 43 starters wore either the HANS device or the Hutchens device designed to support the driver's head and neck in a front impact collision. Clearly some strides have been made.

Fast forward to October 4, 2001. Blaise Alexander was racing Earnhardt's oldest son, Kerry, for an ARCA victory. Coming off turn four the drivers made contact and Alexander's car hit the frontstretch wall nearly head-on. He was killed on impact.

Alexander was not wearing the HANS or the Hutchens device. It's impossible to say whether either device would have saved his life. Having seen the impact, I would tend to doubt it. But one never knows.

I can't say that I knew a great deal about Blaise Alexander. Though I did see him race once-- at Pocono Raceway in 1999. One of my favorite memories from that weekend was when I walked through the ARCA garage area, desolate compared to the fan intense Winston Cup garage area. The crews were not wearing uniforms with Fortune 500 companies on the front-- they were volunteers in t-shirts and jeans. Blaise Alexander was a local kid from Montoursville, Pennsylvania. He started from the pole, led the most laps, and won the race. When you win at the triangular Pocono Raceway, you've proven you can drive stock cars. No matter if it's ARCA or Winston Cup, it takes a driver to win at Pocono.

Alexander proved he could drive, but getting the right opportunity was a different story. He won an ARCA race at Michigan in 2001 and looked to be on his way to a victory at Charlotte. Once again, another driver gone before reaching his full potential. In a way, that's even more heartbreaking than what occured on February 18, 2001.

I don't have the answers as to why five drivers have died on racetracks in the past seventeen months. I just know that stock car racing has seen it's share of brutal crashes over the years. A very, very small percentage of those crashes has resulted in a major injury to a driver. An even smaller percentage has resulted in death. Yet there have been five such instances since May 2000.

Stock cars are built to crash into each other. Crashing into concrete walls is a different story. The NASCAR mandated stiffer chassis rules for 1999 have been talked about as a root cause. After all, drivers have slammed into concrete walls for years. Dale Earnhardt's crash at Talladega in 1996 ran the gamut. He slammed head-on into the wall, flipped over, and was hit by a number of cars. He suffered a broken sternum, broken collarbone, and bruised ribs.

During a 125-mile Qualifying race at Daytona a few years ago, Ken Schrader got down on the apron in turn two and veered up the track. He hit the wall head-on and suffered a broken sternum. But he walked away from the 170 mile per hour impact. Was it luck that both survived those wrecks? Only God knows for sure.

Safety advances such as soft walls and an energy absorbing bumper have been tested in recent months. Though neither seems destined for an actual race anytime soon. Maybe Blaise Alexander's death will convince drivers that a head and neck support system is as necessary as wearing a seat belt and a helmet. Maybe Blaise Alexander's death will convince track owners to accelerate the development of soft wall technology. Maybe Blaise Alexander's death will convince the sanctioning bodies of stock car events that racing is even more dangerous today than it ever has been. Maybe Blaise Alexander's death will force some real changes in auto racing. This wasn't a random occurrence. This wasn't a mechanical failure. There's no seat belt to blame in this one.

Yet another black cloud has been cast over auto racing. Racing prides itself on being family entertainment. In some ways it is. In others, it isn't. You wouldn't take your kids to a bullfight, yet legions of children file in to racetracks every year. But, there's a dark side to watching the pretty painted cars that go fast. Five drivers crashed into walls and died in the past seventeen months. And corporate America continues to underwrite the sport.

For the participants, they know the risks going in. But the "it'll never happen to me" philosophy has pervaded. To some degree, that changed in February 2001. But there's still a long way to go. Wrecks are an accepted part of racing. On any given Sunday there will be some wrecks. You just hope the severity of them are minor. But death is not an accepted part of racing. Baseball, basketball, football, and hockey players don't die on the field of play during competition. Neither do golfers, tennis players, or soccer players. But five race car drivers in the past seventeen months have died on the field of play. And auto racing is family entertainment? It is the most dangerous game. Then again, it's not a game. It's a matter of life and death.

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