February 19, 2006

DALE DIED THAT THEY MIGHT LIVE:

How Many Lives Did Dale Earnhardt Save? (STEPHEN J. DUBNER and STEVEN D. LEVITT, 2/19/06, NY Times Magazine)

[N]ascar's record of zero deaths in five years over six million miles is perhaps not as remarkable as it first sounded. Still, driving a race car would seem to be substantially more dangerous than taking a trip to the supermarket. What has Nascar done to produce its zero-fatality record?

It's a long list. Well before Earnhardt was killed, each driver was already wearing a helmet, fireproof suit and shoes and a five-point safety harness. Months after Earnhardt's death, Nascar began requiring the use of a head-and-neck restraint that is tethered to a driver's helmet and prevents his head from flying forward or sideways in a crash. (Like many race-car drivers who are killed, Earnhardt suffered a fracture to the base of the skull.) It erected safer walls on its race tracks. And it began to zealously collect crash data. This Incident Database (which Nascar politely declined to let us examine) is gleaned from two main sources: a black box now mounted on every vehicle and the work of a new Field Investigation unit. These field investigators meticulously take key measurements on every car before every race, and then if a car is involved in a crash, they retake those measurements.

"In the past, a car would be in an accident, the driver would have no injuries and the team would load up the car and go home," says Gary Nelson, who runs Nascar's research and development center. "But now they measure every car in certain areas, and we make a log of that. Like the width of the seat — it seems simple, the width of the headrest from left to right. But in an accident, those things can bend, and the amount they bend can help us understand the energy involved. When we began, we thought our seats were adequately strong, but we found these things to be bending more than we thought. So we've come back since and rewritten the regulations."

Although it is wildly reductive to put it this way, a Nascar driver has two main goals: to win a race and to not be killed. Nascar's recent safety measures seem to have considerably reduced the likelihood of being killed. So could it be that drivers are now willing to be more reckless? When crashing is made less costly, an economist would fully expect drivers to be crashing like crazy; could it be that Nascar's safety measures have led to fewer deaths but more crashes?

A quick look at the data seems to suggest so. In last year's Nextel Cup races, there were 345 cars involved in crashes, an all-time high. But, as Matt Kenseth points out, the two cup races held during 2005 at Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C., were unusually brutal — the track had a new surface that caused numerous flat tires — and may have aberrationally affected the crash count. "In Charlotte, pretty much everybody wrecked in both races," he says. "It was the fault of the track and the tires — but if you take those races out of it, crashes are probably about even." And there were actually fewer crashes in 2004 than there were in 2003. While the number of overall crashes are up a bit since Earnhardt's death (Nascar will not release annual crash counts, but one official did confirm this trend), they haven't increased nearly as much as an economist might have predicted based on how Nascar's safety measures would seem to have shifted a driver's incentives.

Maybe that's because there are other, perhaps stronger, incentives at play. The first is that Nascar has increased its penalties for reckless driving, not only fining drivers but also subtracting points in their race for the cup championship. The other lies in how the cup championship itself has been restructured. Two years ago, Nascar gave its 36-race season a playoff format. In order to qualify for the playoffs — and have a chance at winning the $6 million-plus cup championship — a driver must be among the points leaders after the first 26 races of the season. While a couple of 20th-place finishes during those first 26 races won't necessary ruin your championship hopes (each race fields a slate of 43 cars), a few bad crashes might.

So Nascar has reduced a danger incentive but imposed a financial incentive, thus maintaining the delicate and masterful balance it has cultivated: it has enough crashes to satisfy its fans but not too many to destroy the sport — or its drivers. (Nascar fans love crashes the way hockey fans love fights; when you watch the Speed Channel's edited replays of Nascar races, the plot is always the same: green flag, crash, crash, crash, crash, crash, checkered flag.)

And here lies the most startling statistic concerning Nascar and driver safety. In the past five years, more than 3,000 vehicles have crashed in Nascar's three top divisions, with zero fatalities. How does this compare with crashes on American highways? For interstate travel, there are 5.2 driver deaths per 1,000 crashes. At this rate, it would seem likely that those 3,000 Nascar crashes would have produced at least 15 deaths — and yet there have been none.

MORE:
Safer, richer and better is Dale Earnhardt's legacy (Rupen Fofaria, 2/19/06, ESPN.com)

Reminders of him are everywhere.

They're in the scores of "3"-clad fans flooding the grandstands, the flapping of Earnhardt flags over infield motorcoaches, and the impersonators who, like their Elvis counterparts, dedicate themselves to their mirrored glasses, moustaches and Goodyear jumpsuits in hopes of most resembling their idol.

"We're constantly reminded of him," driver Terry Labonte said.

The reminders are in the safety innovations of the past five years. They're in the stripes which form the letter "E" on the side of Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s cars. They're in chats with Mark Martin: "Being an old school guy," the retiring vet says, "I like to talk about back when. And a lot of that back when had to do with Dale."

And they're in that picture Jeff Gordon keeps with him still. The picture was taken at Pocono after Gordon had passed Earnhardt and the Intimidator rammed his car into the back of Gordon's. Earnhardt hit the gas, pushed Gordon down the back straightaway and kept on chugging through the turn. Gordon finally had to lay on the brake to keep from running straight into the wall, and when he did, Earnhardt turned him sideways.

Gordon remembers confronting Earnhardt about it afterward. "Nope. Wasn't me," Earnhardt told Gordon. "I didn't do anything." So Earnhardt's story stayed until one day a fan found Gordon and showed him the incredible photograph he shot from behind Turn 3 at Pocono. Gordon headed straight for Earnhardt's hauler.

"I told you," Gordon exalted. "Man, you were six inches underneath my rear bumper!"

Gordon still laughs when he sees that picture, which now also boasts Earnhardt's signature.

"It's the only autograph I've ever gotten from a driver that I've raced against," Gordon said.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 19, 2006 6:34 PM
Comments

They've only had 8 drivers killed in 50+ years. Compare that to F1 or Grand AM. Also, the cars were just as fast and much less safe back in the late-60s and early-70s and still didn't have a high fatality rate.

Posted by: Pete at February 19, 2006 9:23 PM

It would be interesting to compare the NASCAR fatality rate to the US national average.

Posted by: Gideon at February 20, 2006 8:16 AM

Not a big fan of the round-and-rounds

Posted by: Bartman at February 20, 2006 8:59 AM

Isn't it a lot safer to drive, even at high speeds, when everyone is going in one direction? Doesn't seem to compare to driving in general.

Posted by: RC at February 20, 2006 11:48 AM

Yes. NASCAR has lots of crashes because all the cars are about equally fast, which leads to lots of drafting a very tight main pack. They have very few fatal crashes for the same reason, the relative velocities are just not that high. Earnhart's wreck was a little unusual in that he was twisted sideways by the car behind him, but not enough to break the front end loose , so he shot basically straight up and into the wall. A normal NASCAR wreck ends up with everybody sliding more or less in the same direction.

Posted by: joe shropshire at February 20, 2006 1:16 PM
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