Safety Should Not Be Optional
Since Eric Medlen’s fatal accident this spring at Gainesville, FL, racer safety measures have taken on new prominence in drag racing’s highest ranks. It’s horrible to think, but I’m convinced Medlen’s death, as one of the sport’s most promising and visible stars, served more purpose than if the same fate had befallen one of his lesser-known peers. Just as Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s death at Daytona in 2001 finally spurred NASCAR to beef up its driver safety requirements, I’m quite certain that Medlen’s legacy will be one of saving many drivers from similar injuries in the future.
Ironically, it appears his team owner and teammate, John Force, is among the first to directly benefit from changes made to modern Funny Car construction based on lessons learned from Medlen’s crash. By all accounts, the extra, improved padding in the cockpit prevented any head injury to Force in his recent, violent accident at Dallas, as well as possibly prevented similar injuries to Kenny Bernstein, whose car also was involved. Of course, Force’s calamity exposed additional shortcomings in chassis design, but those also are being addressed now to better protect the driver’s limbs. It’s a never-ending process.
But those rules and changes are being made in response to previously unknown or unanticipated events. It’s quite something else when safety measures are not taken to protect against clearly known threats.
I recently attended an unsanctioned, “outlaw” event at a small, eighth-mile track here in the Deep South. These races are great fun to watch and cover as you won’t find more enthusiastic—or knowledgeable—fans anywhere across the drag racing spectrum. The cars and the drivers, for the most part, are great, too. There is every bit as much top-notch machinery and as many skilled wheelsmen as you’d see at any sanctioned event across the country.
Now, I know “outlaw” typically means “no rules,” but I’ve always considered that to mean no rules as they pertain to performance. Safety rules, it seems to me, should always be in place and enforced. There’s outlaw and then there’s stupid.
Unfortunately, the latter was on prominent display at this particular event. I repeatedly witnessed a driver climbing into a nitrous-fed, 4.70-second machine that routinely tripped the timers at nearly 140 mph wearing nothing more than sneakers, jeans and a short-sleeved T-shirt. And I’m not sure, but I think he also wasn’t strapping down the full-face helmet he pulled down over his apparently expendable head.
In this day and age of easy access to online clips of drag racing crashes and scary start-line nitrous fires I find it incredible that a young, tech-savvy driver (he wore his Internet-ready camera phone on his hip as he raced) wouldn’t be aware of the danger he was courting. It bothered me enough to approach this guy and ask why he wasn’t wearing any kind of driving suit. His answer? “Yeah, I really should be. I’ve got one at home, but I just didn’t bother to bring it this time.”
Well, at least he was honest. But really, shouldn’t it have been a track official who asked where his driver suit was? They certainly were aware of the situation as he squeezed over his car’s side rollcage right in front of them in the staging lanes. They dutifully checked their ladder sheets and made sure he showed up for each round and got in the correct lane to run. Is it really too much to expect they’d also make sure he was properly attired to race? Apparently so.
I’m not privy to the nuances of insuring a racetrack, but surely even an outlaw venue that’s been in operation for years with a tower, grandstands and timing system must be prepared for some sort of indemnity. And what about this clueless driver’s car owner? This driver was a hired hand, so is there not an obligation to insist on safety measures there, too? If not legally, then morally?
In my opinion, ignoring safety is an insult to the legacies of guys like Medlen and the recently deceased Wally Parks, who founded the NHRA based on safety principles. We’d like to never see another serious injury or death in big-league drag racing, though the nature of the sport suggests it’s probably going to happen again someday. The best we can hope for is that day will be a long, long way off thanks to safety measures being explored and implemented now.
But to blatantly reject something as simple, as basic, as common sense as a driver’s suit or buckling a helmet is incomprehensible to me and really quite selfish. Each driver, team owner and track official needs to think of those who will be left behind to deal with a disfigured, disabled or dead drag racer just because they couldn’t be bothered to enforce the simplest of safety measures.