Sixty-three years old, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) is ready to begin its’ new season with the Daytona 500, this Sunday, February 20th.  The 38-race season runs from February to November.  Sports fans are getting ready to watch their favorite drivers and race teams display fast speeds and daring driving. 

Little emphasis was placed on safety in the early days of racing, but following several high speed crashes that caused the deaths of beloved drivers, the industry has focused on every detail from building safer cars to outfitting the drivers with the safest equipment and protective clothing.   Racing safety has evolved rather slowly through the years.  Drivers began wearing crash helmets in the 40’s.  Roll bars were added to the cars in the 50’s, and roll cages came along in the 60’s.  When the HANS (head and neck system) device was developed in the 80’s, many drivers were adamant that they would not wear it.  Now, drivers are required to wear this life-saving piece of equipment.  Drivers wear fire retardant suits made of Proban or Nomex material.  Some prefer to wear full-face helmets, while others say a full-face helmet restricts their peripheral vision, and choose open-face helmets with goggles.  Most drivers wear six-point harness belts that wrap around their legs.  All belts are connected to a single harness that can be quickly released to exit the cockpit rapidly. 

In 2002, NASCAR built it’s Research and Development Center, a combination warehouse, lab, and machine shop.  The goal of the R&D Center is to affect all three areas – safety, competition, and cost – in a positive way.  This center is the equivalent of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.  A platform with a portable coordinate measurement machine checks each chassis.  This machine makes up to 220 measurements and is accurate to one ten thousandth of an inch.  It gives the car a unique serial number and installs about 10 small radio frequency chips. A record of this inspection is saved for future comparisons.  There is no expense to the teams, but allows NASCAR inspectors in the field to scan the chips to ensure the car is the one that has been certified.  In the event of an accident, the car must be re-certified before it can be raced again.  Other safety improvements in the cars include moving the driver’s seat closer to the center of the car, enlarging the cockpit area and adding crushable material in the doorframes.  

Just this past Sunday, NASCAR announced the addition of a pressure relief valve to the engine and small front grille openings in hopes of reducing the time two cars can remain in drafting tandems.  Tandem drafting has become a fine dance of two drivers connecting nose to tail at speeds over 200 mph to achieve an advantage over other race cars on the track.   But NASCAR’s recent decisions to decrease the airflow to the grill, limit the psi (pounds per square inch) in the pressure relief valves, and then Wednesday’s switch to a smaller restrictor plate, were designed to lower speeds and discourage the extended periods of two-car drafts that occurred in Saturday night’s Budweiser Shootout, according to Fox News.  In the tandems last Saturday night, speeds exceeded 206 m.p.h.   NASCAR  reported Wednesday the size of restrictor plates will be reduced in an attempt to cut speeds before the season-opening Daytona 500.  The reduction amounts to 1/64” and possibly could cut 8 r.p.m.s from engines. 

Barriers called SAFER have been built to absorb crashes better than concrete.  These barriers contain crushable foam insulation behind a series of square steel tubes.  Since these have been in place there have been no fatalities resulting from incidents with an outer wall barrier in any of NASCAR’s three major series. 

By sharing this information about this popular sport, we hope you fans will appreciate knowing the many steps that are taken to keep the drivers safe.  Be prepared if you plan to attend a big race, by taking along some earplugs, sunscreen, and safety sunglasses.  Wear your team hardhat to support your favorite driver, at the race or at work!

As with any occupation, it is up to every individual to be safe.  These drivers make the decision to earn their living in a job that poses more danger than many others.  They know the consequences, but choose be involved in a sport that they love.  We wish them all the success in the world, and a safe season for 2011.