Is NASCAR Racing Too Dangerous?

ByABC News
February 19, 2001, 12:57 PM

Feb. 19, 2001 -- All car racing, NASCAR included, is a delicate balance between safety and speed that's what makes it so exciting.

But does the excitement compromise the safety of NASCAR racing? Some experts don't think so.

"NASCAR racing is the safest form of racing in all of sports, [and] in all motor sports, there's nothing safer than those race cars," says ESPN racing analyst Jerry Punch.

Safety Features Optional

That's debatable. Dr. Steve Olvey, an experienced track doctor who has worked with NASCAR, thinks the organization does little to protect drivers.

"Their feeling is that the responsibility for safety lies more with the individual driver and the team than it does with the racing organization and that is a different philosophy and a different way of looking at it," says Olvey.

The Head And Neck Safety (HANS) system is a perfect example. Although it's required on other major racing circuits, it is optional for NASCAR drivers, even though it's the best protection available for the kind of catastrophic head injury that occurs when speeding cars hit cement walls.

"If the race driver has a very strong neck muscle the neck won't fail the base of the skull which carries all that load breaks," says John Melvin, the former head of safety at General Motors and now a consultant for several NASCAR teams.

The HANS system may have saved the lives of seven of the last 10 NASCAR drivers killed. But because it's optional, only a handful of drivers used it Sunday.

Making the Races More Exciting

While leaving many safety issues up to the individual driver, NASCAR does mandate car modifications to make the races more competitive and exciting. This year, a "restrictor plate" on the engine slowed all cars down, which led to more pileups.

"Something like this is going to happen with these rules," says race car driver Jeff Gordon. "It's great racing you know, it's exciting, there's a lot of passing, a lot of lead changes, but one little mistake and that's what's going to happen."