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Stewart’s accident needs to create safety improvements

Aug 6, 2013, 1:15 PM EDT

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The hand-wringing over Tony Stewart racing sprint cars, and getting injured, is already underway.

Suddenly hundreds of armchair experts are saying something to the degree of, “Why is he racing a sprint car? Shouldn’t he be more concerned with his NASCAR commitments?”

Fact is, “Smoke” is the only person qualified to comment about what Smoke wants to do, and the only person who can give him the green light on what he chooses to do.

He exemplifies the term “racer” because he’s keen on running as many different types of cars, on so many tracks in so many cities. He’s his own boss; he races anytime, anywhere at his own risk and for his own enjoyment. He’s the closest modern day thing to his hero, A.J. Foyt, and just like Foyt, he runs the No. 14.

And if his sponsors had a problem with it, they wouldn’t be sponsoring him. Or allowing him to race in these events. Period. End of story.

The more pressing issue, and with dirt racing heavily in the national motorsports news in 2013, is what kind of safety upgrades tracks or sprint car series need to make to prevent this onslaught of serious injuries or worse this year.

Jason Leffler, one of Stewart’s friends and a high-profile name, was killed in June; an improved headrest may have saved his life.  Kramer Williamson died Sunday from injuries sustained in a crash in Pennsylvania, and Josh Burton died a couple weeks before Leffler from injuries sustained in a crash in Indiana. Per a USA Today report, there have been other deaths in Nevada (late May, two drivers) and California (two people killed after a car crashed on pit road, leaving a track).

Track themselves largely lack the SAFER barriers. Roll cages and seats can be improved. The HANS device or other head-and-neck support systems should be mandated if they aren’t already. There’s a lack of unity in the regulations across several series.

Dirt racing had its national breakout night a couple weeks ago with the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series’ race at Eldora Speedway, a track Stewart owns, in Rossburg, Ohio. But now, the focus should shift to improving the standards at the tracks, cars and drivers, and not questioning who chooses to race there.

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  1. noring4youstill - Aug 6, 2013 at 1:26 PM

    Simple. Money

  2. waldrep48 - Aug 6, 2013 at 1:42 PM

    Now would probably be a good time to remind (for most “NASCAR fans” inform for the first time) the origins of “Smoke” and just who “Smoke Johnson” is! “Smoke Johnson” is the “long lost son” of Ted Johnson, the founder of the World of Outlaws. Tony entered the Chili Bowl under this name because “Tony Stewart” wasn’t allowed to under the contract he had with Joe Gibbs Racing / Home Depot at the time.

    (An interesting note – after the race while at a Hooters restaurant with some of his fellow racers Tony gave the nick name of “Smoke” to AJ Anderson because AJ blow his engine and smoked up the whole building.)

  3. quizguy66 - Aug 6, 2013 at 1:47 PM

    With these high profile accidents and the interest Tony has brought to this level of racing (and the potential for heavier NASCAR involvement) hopefully the needed safety improvements come through and a lot of good for the sport can come out of this.

    -QG

  4. henson58 - Aug 6, 2013 at 1:52 PM

    Fact is you can add all the safer barrier you want. Sprint car injuries happen due to roll overs not high speed impacts in to the wall.

    • midtec2005 - Aug 6, 2013 at 10:03 PM

      Did you watch the wreck he got hurt in? He hit another car… but it still wasn’t the wall!

  5. cjbubeck - Aug 6, 2013 at 2:36 PM

    I would be curious to know if this writer and those making comments have ever been to a dirt track. Thousands of racers go to their local dirt (or asphalt) tracks every week from April to October or November. Many racers do use the Hans or some kind of neck restraint. Racers do it because they love to race. Smoke has been racing a long time and accidents happens. He knows and accepts the risks. Period.

  6. drifter4lib - Aug 6, 2013 at 3:39 PM

    Nice sensationalistic grab on the Perris Auto Speedway accident, you make it sound like it was yesterday, it was 10 years ago. Godspeed to the Bagley’s.

    Stewart has been racing sprints for a long time, and has deep roots in dirt track, like many racers do. He has done sporadic specific sprint car races and World of Outlaws for awhile, so he crashes and it makes news, suddenly he is defamed, little late to the party.

    Sprint cars are not near as dangerous as they once were, a family like the Kaeden’s have been racing for decades with no fatalities. Leffler’s death brought attention because he was high profile, it was tragic but suddenly the casual folks need to fix things they know nothing about. Godspeed to Mr. Leffler.

    Remember non winged sprints and winged WOO’s are two completely different animals in the way of handling.

    Racing is dangerous, don’t like it don’t participate in it, as a racer or a fan.

    • dbbd22 - Aug 6, 2013 at 5:09 PM

      drifter, while I agree with all of your comments, I don’t believe the author was addressing the tragic accident at Perris 10 years ago. There was an accident earlier this year at Marysville that killed 2 people in the pits. Ironically, they were associated with the car that crashed.

      What I’ve been telling people is that when you factor in the hundreds of short tracks around the country, and the thousands of drivers that participate, they would find the sport is pretty darn safe.

      Yes, we should always look for ways to improve and the professionals in the sport are always looking at ways to improve safety. The last thing we need is people who don’t understand or know the sport pushing for some sort of regulatory standard to be forced on every track and racing organization.

      • Tony DiZinno - Aug 6, 2013 at 5:11 PM

        You’re correct, I was referring to the Maryville one but apologies for not clarifying. Was citing from the USA Today link.

        Grew up going to sprint car races at the former Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix. So familiar with being there on site.

  7. dbbd22 - Aug 6, 2013 at 5:11 PM

    I’d like to ask the author how exactly he’d improve the seats and cages and what qualifications he has to justify his recommendations.

  8. kitnamania13 - Aug 6, 2013 at 5:59 PM

    Dirt tracks are closing left and right due to the tough economy. If they are required to have NASCAR-level safety features, almost all of them will have to close. There will always be danger in racing. We need to accept that and let the people who participate decide for themselves if the risk is worth it.

    • midtec2005 - Aug 6, 2013 at 10:05 PM

      Thank you… this is purely a money issue.

  9. fredbavre - Aug 7, 2013 at 12:43 AM

    I’ve been going to sprint car races 28 of my 36 years on this earth, & I can agree that there could be improvements. carbon fiber monocoques (sp?) will be expensive but are a logical next step. agreed as well on the hans devices. the vertical strength of the cage needs to be improved (shane hmiel crash?), torsion stops (jason leffler) are being redesigned now. sound tethering of the axles/wheels. I do thing that safer barriers are debatable. the main argument I’ve heard is that the speed/weight of the cars reduces their effectiveness. I’m actually kind of conflicted right now, seeing how much mainstream press sprint car racing has been able to get this year. hate to see the injuries, but maybe people will recognize that this is the most exciting form of racing in MURICA. oh yeah, when considering the amount of injuries/deaths in open wheel dirt racing, please try to have a grasp on the number of these events that happen all around MURICA, Australia, & New Zealand.

    • fredbavre - Aug 7, 2013 at 12:45 AM

      there’s a lot of them! most people don’t know about them though. it’s such a niche thing, nobody ever bothers to market it.

    • midtec2005 - Aug 7, 2013 at 1:49 AM

      “the main argument I’ve heard is that the speed/weight of the cars reduces their effectiveness.”

      I see your point, but I would think they could counteract the lower speeds and weight by using foam that crushes more easily. If you look at the SAFER barrier between indycar and nascar races it actually differs, to compensate for the lower weight of indycars. They remove some of the foam from the crush area. I think the same principle could be applied. The real issue is probably that small town tracks don’t have enough money to install the soft walls.

  10. lukefidler - Aug 7, 2013 at 8:29 AM

    Mr. DiZinno I would respectfully ask if you actually looked into the crashes that you mention before declaring soft walls a solution? Stewart hit a stopped car, no amount of Safer barrier would have helped that. Stewart’s has a full containment seat and he wears a HANS. It was just an impact. Leffler died from blunt force trauma to his neck, meaning an object physically stuck him in the neck. No safer barrier would have solved that. Maybe a fuller seat might have shielded him, likely not. Burton and Williamson died from various internal injuries and the way they crashed the Safer barrier would not have stopped that either. And to include the accident in California with “sprint car deaths” is a real stretch, as a mechanical failure that drives the car into the pits could happen on any car out there. The failure there was the track’s method of protecting the pits.
    But I don’t disagree that we need to do things. We need bars on the top of the cage over the driver. Peter Murphy was nearly killed in California when the top of his cage was struck by another car. We need a new sprint car frame design that is wider and shields the cockpit better. And I hate to say it, but we may need to look at changing the entire geometry of the sprint car so that the huge right rear tire is gone because that tire is the springboard that often puts the car in the air. But I firmly disagree with this push toward soft walls I see in the press. Tell me how a soft wall would have saved Tony Stewart’s leg, and if it weren’t for his leg this article wouldn’t exist.

  11. dbbd22 - Aug 7, 2013 at 10:48 AM

    Putting a bar across the top of the cage would close off an entrance and exit to the cockpit, not to mention hinder any possible rescue efforts. Sprint cars have more body work on them now than ever and that space is necessary.

    Leffler died of blunt force trauma to the neck, caused by a high speed impact due to mechanical failure. Google the NJ State police report and you’ll find the details. He was not struck in the neck, the impact was so violent that it broke his neck. He had a HANS device, but that still wasn’t enough. A SAFER barrier expert stated the barrier probably wouldn’t have helped. He might have stood a chance if he had a better seat. The question then is do the organizations require that seat or should.it be left to the drivers? I say keep it up to the drivers.

    • lukefidler - Aug 7, 2013 at 2:27 PM

      I’ve read the NJ report and they way they define the blunt force trauma it would be caused by an impact to the exterior of the neck, crushing the internals. It could have been the wall, could have been parts of the car, and could have been impact onto his own seat, but something struck him in the neck. Had he died of a broken neck the cause of death would have likely been basiliur skull fracture, or other fracture.
      I know what the opening is for, I drive dirt mini-sprints myself. 2 properly placed bars on the top of the car will leave enough room to wiggle out if needed but still protect the top of the head. On a winged sprint that exit is often unusable anyhow, so the logic that closing the top of the cage would trap the driver would also have to say that wings should be banned. And the bodywork can be changed to allow for right side exit. I can get out the ride side of my car if I have to, but it’s tight.
      I love dirt racing but if we don’t soon drop the attitude that everything is fine we’re going to be in trouble. Tracks are going to be unable to get insurance or some crazy politician is going to try to step in. As a sport we are stupid about crashing. After Hmeil’s crash every chassis maker should have been trying to figure out how to prevent the cage halo from collapsing, but none did a thing. TripleX sent a chassis to be crushed on a sled to see just how bad it is (video is on YouTube) yet nothing was changed to prevent it.

      • dbbd22 - Aug 7, 2013 at 2:56 PM

        luke, regarding Leffler, my comments were based on what I’ve read and heard from people that were there. Its possible I misunderstood what I’ve been told and read. Either way, I definitely see where a seat that comes around the head could possibly have helped him.

        In an emergency extraction, the wing can and usually is moved out of the way or has separated from the car. Of course, in extreme circumstances they might even cut the cage. So, maybe the point is moot in either case.

        I agree with you on the bodywork. If anything is done to the top of the cage, that bodywork would have to go away or be modified. I’ve seen the Hmeil crash, and yes, it’s terrifying. Beyond seeing it, I don’t really know enough about it to comment further. I would hope that the chassis builders are always looking for ways to improve the chassis.

        And I totally agree with you on the politicians. I didn’t mean to imply that everything is “fine”, I still see things at the track that make me scratch my head. As I said in an earlier post, we can always improve. I just have a problem with people who have never driven, crewed or otherwise [b]participated[/b] in the sport in any other way getting up an preaching about improving the safety. Obviously, that’s not the case with your comments and I appreciate the discussion.

  12. lukefidler - Aug 7, 2013 at 3:51 PM

    I wasn’t there either, I’m just going off of what I understand the medical definition of “Blunt force trauma” to be. I just feel we need to stop being macho race car guys and realize that if we don’t fix this within ourselves someone from outside of the sport will try to fix it for us. Google a sprint car pic from the early 90’s and it appears the evolution of the sprint car frame basically stopped once the down tubes were added. After that it was all improvements in geometry to make the cars handle better, but I see nothing on the chassis that makes today’s car safer than a chassis from 1991.
    YouTube the crash video and you’ll see what we need fixed. It’s on an account from IMMI, its called “sprint car crash test into wall”. I was wrong on the chassis brand. It’s a Spike not a TripleX. The first crash is bad…the second crash shows how poorly sprint car chassis are really designed.

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