Monday, April 7, 2008

McDowell's crash brings bad memories to the forefront

After watching rookie Michael McDowell's horrific crash during qualifying at the Texas Motor Speedway this past Friday, I began to think about some of the worst wrecks that I remember from my almost two decades of watching NASCAR racing. I've seen driver upon driver get upside down and flip wildly at Daytona and Talladega. I've seen cars absolutely demolished at other places. But it's a hit like McDowell took on Friday that brings the memory back of the darkest day that I can recall being a NASCAR fan. 

It's a miracle that McDowell was able to walk away from that crash. I would imagine it might be the hardest hit ever recorded by NASCAR's black box system and we should know exactly what the numbers were in a few weeks. It scared me for a minute. The almost head-on impact with the SAFER barrier was actually more frightening for me than the 9 barrel rolls that followed. 

Younger or less experienced NASCAR fans think that life threatening injuries come when a car is flipping over and over. That is not however the case. The worst injuries or even death comes when a car hits a wall head on at high speeds. We can say now that we are all thankful for SAFER walls and the HANS device. But unfortunately that was not always the case. 

I've talked about it time and time again with friends but I don't mention it much while I'm on air. I'm glad that all of these safety improvements have come but I wish they had come around about 10 years earlier. If they had, then February 18, 2001 would have been drastically different. 

Of course I'm referring to the accident in the last lap of the Daytona 500 which took Dale Earnhardt's life. His wreck was similar to McDowell's from Friday afternoon. But Dale's impact with the wall was intensified by the fact that there was no SAFER barrier to take away some of the energy from the car which was placed directly on the driver. There was no HANS device to keep Dale's head from shifting forward and causing a basilar skull fracture, which was his official cause of death. 

Dale Earnhardt's legacy in the sport was not his 76 career wins or 7 Cup Series championships. His legacy will be felt for years as the driving force which caused NASCAR to make safety improvements to keep other drivers from losing their life. Not since February 18, 2001 has a driver in NASCAR's top three touring divisions lost his life due to an on-track accident. We have Dale Earnhardt to thank for that fact. 

You can watch McDowell's wreck all you want on YouTube (it's been viewed over a million times since Friday.) You can say wow when his car begins to flip wildly through turn one of the Texas Motor Speedway. But when I see the 00 car hit that wall head on all I can think about is seeing a black car with a #3 on the side of it hitting the wall at Daytona in almost the same fashion. 

Seven years later it still stings me to think about that February day. I'm glad McDowell can live to race another day. We can't say the same for those who paved the road to the improvements that saved his life.