It might seem an odd question to ask whether a sport in which people race cars around circuits at 200-mph is dangerous, since it quite evidently is. Our core question today, however, isn’t whether NASCAR is dangerous or not, but rather just how dangerous it is. We want to try and get some sense of perspective and scale.
NASCAR racing has inherent dangers. Factors affecting how dangerous NASCAR can be include, speed, proximity of racing, track layout, length of race and driver fatigue. Although the dangers of accidents are ever present to both teams and spectators there is an increasing emphasis on safety to mitigate these dangers.
There are obviously numerous factors that contribute to danger levels, but also numerous changes and policies implemented over the years that have contributed to much greater safety. Besides the drivers themselves, we also have to consider the safety of the pit crews, and even the audience sitting in the stands behind those high fences. As it happens, nothing and no one involved in NASCAR are always quite as safe as they appear.
So, besides the track itself and the looming possibility of death in a fiery crash, what other risk factors exist for NASCAR drivers?
Speed of the Cars
As we briefly mentioned before, speed is the one of the primary risk factors at play in NASCAR. When you watch the sport on TV, it is hard to truly appreciate how fast they are going since the camera angles that tend to follow the vehicles create an illusion that things are moving a bit more slowly. If you are sitting in the stands watching in person and you see the cars come by, you know what 200-mph really looks like.
Obviously, higher speeds means less time to react to changing circumstances. The faster the car goes, the less time the driver has to do things that we regular drivers on the public road take for granted such as checking our instruments (see further below). Speed is especially dangerous when combined with our next factor.
Proximity of Racing
In the past, there have been as many as 60 cars in a single race, all navigating that same circuit. Nowadays it peaks at 40, but that’s still a lot of vehicles moving on a limited track at those incredible speeds. Previously we mentioned reaction times, and that’s critical when the road is crowded.
Imagine a road with heavy traffic and everyone tailgating each other at 150-200-mph and you get the feel for what a NASCAR track would feel like.
Extended Race Length
A lot of NASCAR races include 200-250 laps. While some of the tracks may be very short, the sheer number of times the crowd of vehicles has to make it around without incident makes it incredibly risky.
Many of the worst accidents in NASCAR history have happened in the final laps, and even on the very last lap. It proves that the level of concentration needed even right up until the last moment is critical. That brings us to the next point.
Distraction of Drivers
Distraction is another enemy of NASCAR drivers because absolutely anything that diverts the attention of these drivers for even a millisecond too long could have terrible consequences.
For most regular drivers, you could be fiddling with your infotainment system for some time before the distraction generates a real danger — a dozen or more seconds is feasible. NASCAR drivers might get distracted for a single second and find themselves in a pileup or some other danger.
Anyone driving or working closely within the NASCAR environment on a regular basis exposes themselves to a number of health risks despite measures used to protect themselves. Inhalation of all those fumes can’t be good, and it has been known for drivers and pit crews to be smoking in areas where gasoline is being used.
The races are also very loud, which could damage one’s hearing, although ear protection is now commonplace.
Of course, it’s not just the drivers who bear the brunt of the risk when races are going on. Incidents in the past of pit crew workers being killed by speeding cars, or crashing cars coming into the pit area creating a trail of havoc and destruction as they go.
These are people on the ground walking around just trying to do their jobs surrounded by speeding vehicles with tense-nervous drivers who can’t let themselves be distracted for a single second. It’d be safer to work in the middle of the interstate!
When things go wrong, there’s sometimes not enough downforce in the world to keep cars on the tracks, nor their constituent parts. Horrendous incidents of fans in the stands being injured and killed are not objectively numerous, but we should be able to agree that even 1 is too many. Between 1990 and 2002, a total of 29 spectators have been killed by crashing cars or flying parts, along with another 70 people suffering terrible injuries — and those are just the numbers for Daytona Beach.
Another incident in 2013 saw NASCAR fan Allen Davis impaled by flying car parts and suffering a traumatic brain injury. He was 1 among 33 injured that day.
The primary focus for boosting the safety of NASCAR has been on the cars themselves. We did an article previously on the many safety features of NASCAR vehicles such as roll cages, special seats, fireproof clothing, the HANS device and more.
One controversial feature among them has been the restrictor plates, which some drivers still argue causes cars to bunch up closer together to try and draft off one another for extra speed, inevitably making serious multi-car accidents more likely. Restrictor plays seem to be being slowly phased out, however, first from Daytona from 2019, and now also from Talladega from 2021 onwards.
An incident in 1987 at Riverside prompted both shock and action on improving pit safety where pit crew members were injured by a crashing car coming down on them, and one crew member, Mike Rich, being crushed and killed despite surgical efforts to save him.
Since this incident, speed limits have been introduced, and crew pits are required to wear helmets. The sad thing is that the late Mike Rich got that job initially because he was a replacement for another fatality that happened in the same crew. He paid for a lack of action following that with his own life, aged just 32.
Major venues like Daytona Beach have made a lot of their hundreds of millions of dollars in investment to “improve the fan experience” but it is as yet unclear how much of the $400+ million they’re spending will go on safety measures.
You might have seen high wire fences around NASCAR tracks and imagine that they’re enough, but in fact much like the restrictor plates, those concerned with track safety worry that these fences cause more harm than good.
The metal mesh fences may prevent a whole car from going through, but what they also do is act a bit like a shredder when smaller parts approach it at speed. A metal mesh fence can thus convert metal components into what is essentially shrapnel. Even tiny pieces of that lodged in people’s head, neck or body can cause life-changing or lethal injury.
An interesting point to consider here is whether or not one can really make a sport like NASCAR, or any motorsport, truly safe. However you work it, there are inherent dangers in putting a number of high-speed vehicles together and having them race around circuits.
As long as one driver is vying for the position of another; as long as people enjoy the speed and thrill of the ride; as long as there are willing drivers, these sports aren’t going anywhere, and thus the danger continues. All we can really do is try our best to mitigate the worst-possible effects.
What does seem evident, however, is that NASCAR does need to do more to ensure spectator and fan safety. They can do this indirectly by reducing crash risks, of course, but most investments in major infrastructure to date don’t seem to include anything directly related to spectator safety. This may have to change.