NASCAR Safety Evolution
When Richard Childress first sat behind the wheel of a racecar in 1965, racing safety was in its earliest stages of development. “I went out and bought a '47 Plymouth. Paid $20 for it,” he says of his first racecar. “We didn't have much for safety back then. We raced in a T-shirt and an open-face helmet, and that was about it. It wasn’t nothing compared to what we’re racing today.”
In those days, safety features were a DIY project for the drivers. “When I very first started with that old '47 Plymouth, we went to the Army Navy Surplus store and bought a seat belt out of an aircraft and put a chain around the frame and bolted it to it,” he remembers. “That was our seat belt.”
Looking back, his efforts were rudimentary. “We didn't realize how important safety was,” Richard says. “We didn’t have the technology that we have today. Safety features have came so far from when I started racing.”
The Safety Revolution Comes to NASCAR
After joining the NASCAR Cup Series full-time in 1973, Richard became part of the process to improve driver safety. A series of crashes had killed several drivers over the past seasons, spurring the series to invest in safety research and development. When he first joined the Cup Series, “We were still losing drivers and seeing some pretty horrific crashes that the drivers couldn't survive. My first serious crash was an eye-opening experience. I said, ‘We’ve got to make racing safer.’”
Soon, NASCAR mandated that its drivers wear nomex suits and full-face helmets. The cars were equipped with three-point safety harnesses and window netting. Drivers began carrying fire extinguishers, and gas tanks were replaced with leak-proof fuel cells, cutting down on fire-related injuries.
The Evolution Continues
As a team owner, Childress has continued to push for the evolution of safety well after his retirement from the sport. “The technology in the cars today is totally beyond anything any of us ever dreamed of 20 years ago,” he says. “Today, the driver sits in a cocoon capsule. He’s buckled into a seven-point restraint, sitting in a carbon-fiber seat and wearing a HANS head-and-neck restraint that cradles his skull in the event of a crash.”
Modern cars are designed for safety, as well. “Our cars today have a roll cage with 12 to 16 inches of separation around the driver to absorb the impact from a crash. We install a five-pound fire suppression system around the driver and a ten-pound fire suppression system around the fuel cell, and our drivers all wear a three-layer nomex suit. When I first started, we carried a half-pound fire extinguisher and wore a single-layer fire suit. The technology then was just nowhere close to what we’re using today.”
Even the tracks have changed. During Richard’s early career, “We had one little guard rail running around some of the tracks.” The most devastating impact of his own career came when he was pushed into an unyielding concrete barrier. “At the end of pit road in Rockingham, they had tires filled up with concrete. I hit those tires sideways with the car, and the car just folded. I was close to the roll cage, and we didn't have harnesses. My head went over and hit the Petty bar. It actually cracked my neck. I have two spurs on the back of my neck from it. My wife said I never was right afterwards.”
Today, all NASCAR racetracks are lined with impact-absorbing Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) Barrier. “The walls today have some give,” Richard says. “NASCAR and the tracks have spent millions of dollars to make the sport safer, and the teams have worked side by side to make sure that we have the best safety not only for the drivers, but for our fans and crews as well.” Thanks to decades of incremental safety improvements, NASCAR has seen zero driver fatalities over the past 16 racing seasons.
The Pursuit Continues
The Cup Series recognizes that safety is an ongoing process. “Any time there is a crash,” Richard says, “NASCAR takes the car, and they'll look at what we can do to make this car safer.”
In July 2015, Richard’s grandson, Austin Dillon, was involved in a massive crash at Daytona, going airborne into the track’s catch fence at 200mph. Austin emerged unharmed, but race officials still sought lessons from the crash. “They took that car and kept going through it and through it, looking for areas that it could be improved,” Richard says. “Our safety technology is always moving forwards.” In response to the crash, “They worked on the catch fence. And they came back and put in a whole different system underneath the car to keep the driver even safer.”
Undoubtedly, the sport’s attitude towards safety has changed. “All of us today—the drivers, the crews, the track officials—everyone is more conscientious about safety,” Richard says. “I know here at Richard Childress Racing, we believe in safety. It’s is our number one priority.”