An Essay On Dale Earnhardt And Daijiro Kato
Dr. James R. Adams, Jr., M.D., Tachyon Sports Injury Research Foundation
Published: December 17, 2003
I think it’s time we wake up and do something about this racing death problem.
“Who, me?” you ask?
If you are a racer, you have an interest. If you are a race promoter, you have an interest. If you are a track owner, you have an interest. If you are a parent, a crewmember, a friend, a fan, anyone! Too often we do nothing. TV and magazine spokespersons spout the philosophy and the sound-bite answers when someone gets killed at the track. Nothing gets done.
Until now, it would be unusual to think of these two, Dale Earnhardt and Daijiro Kato, together. Their style of racing differed as much as their heritage. There were few parallels to their stories other than a history of winning and how they died. They are from different eras in time and it is possible that neither had heard of the other. But both were Champions, and their stories show how the sharp end of the sport can be fatal.
We are missing the point that is being made. It is a point that has been made over and over again since 1955. The crucial point is that many of the fatal accidents of racing have causes that are known in advance. They were preventable. They did not need to happen.
No one takes the responsibility for the death of Dale Earnhardt or Daijiro Kato. Worse, no one takes the responsibility to act in advance to prevent the next one. Instead we “study the problem,” we write moving eulogies. Most of us head for the next race. There can be no doubt that we have made a lot of progress since the 1950s. We spent 20 years with the basics, still killing racers in large numbers. Technical improvements ranged from seatbelts to improved gas tanks and fire resistant-clothing. Rules that sought to adjust speeds downward were tried, but engine, tire, and brake technology led to steadily increasing speeds. Auto racing in particular has seen engineering changes that have created sturdy roll cages and impressively strong tubs that shelter racing drivers. Deaths have decreased appreciably. Yet the biggest problem that confronts both car and motorcycle racers is a premature stop. These solid stops happen on walls. Walls remain a place where the kinetic energy of high performance becomes a killing field. They were there at Daytona in 2001 and they were at Suzuka a couple of months ago. They are too close to the racetrack.
Death has a way of getting our attention. We hear a lot of talk about safety. It is time that we should quit mouthing the platitudes and do something—we are all responsible. To do nothing is to insure that there will be more needless deaths.
Every time someone dies, the same ritual is repeated. Safety is our first concern, we say. The dead person is remembered for his hard work and competitiveness. Crowds stand; eulogies are read and printed in magazines. The following week, the teams are somewhere else, working the 20-hour days, carrying on as usual. Each thousand-mile trip from racetrack to racetrack puts distance between each of us and the death. Our meager attention spans handle the rest.
The walls stay where they are. The poor drainage systems are not changed. The track surfaces continue to age and deteriorate. Track owners and sanctioning bodies discuss the issues of rising insurance rates, margins of profit, and yes, they even talk about safety. But nothing really changes.
Worse, they vow to “study the problem.” This is not some complex problem for a rocket scientist. (The rocket scientists are busy figuring out the space shuttle problem, anyway…) The walls are too close. This is a problem of run-off. This is a problem of track design and of construction. We KNOW the racing machines are faster. We know that this changes the kinetic energy equation.
Every time we install a piece of Airfence we are saying, “This wall is unsafe.” The Airfence works and the racetrack (usually designed for cars more than a decade ago) stays the same. Soft wall technology will help with cars, but even soft-walls designed for cars have no place in high performance motorcycle racing.
The HANS device is already changing the pattern of high-speed impacts for car racers. But here again the real lesson means, “We know that we are subject to greater than 60Gs racing at this track.” In a perfect world we would need neither Airfence nor HANS devices. But this is not a perfect world. Every time you come over the blind entry to a fast bend lined by Armco barriers, you’re in danger. At 150 mph or more, you’re in real danger. The racer knows it, the team knows it, the sanctioning body knows it and the track owner knows it. And this is before anyone is killed.
Daytona and Suzuka (and about 12 other tracks that come to mind) have these known danger areas. Well, now they have actually killed someone. We are told, “something will be done” and “we are studying the problem.”
Is this re-assuring? It could be, if the study of the problem led to moving the walls before the next race. Eliminating a wall would be a sign that we learned something from these fatal accidents. But do we have to kill someone to see the danger?
When was the last time you heard of an expensive change in a wall that did not follow a serious accident or death? The hopeful news is that there are places that are working at it. Track management at Infineon Raceway (formerly Sears Point) included significant safety changes in an overall program of track improvement. More important, they seemed to care enough to ask the racers for opinions. Why were we surprised when it seemed that Infineon not only chose to listen, but also worked to apply the ideas? Because it seemed unusual for this approach to even happen, when it should be the standard.
It is rare for a track to alter a site of potential danger that has never killed or seriously injured a racer. Sure, it happens, but in 2003 there are plenty of sites that can be improved. Some sanctioning bodies have done a lot to reduce danger. Other times we hear of a sanctioning body criticizing a racer for making a direct statement about track safety. This situation should instead lead to a discussion of solutions to the safety problem. Too often comments are used to belittle the opinion of the competitor. How many times have you heard the disclaimers saying, “We run amateur races and race schools here every weekend and they don’t have any complaints, why do the Pros complain?”
The reason the Pros complain is that they’re running 40 mph faster in those walled turns. More important, we’re talking Superbikes, not racecars. We are not talking about roll cages, carbon-fiber tubs, HANS devices, and six-point belts. We’re talking about a human body, airborne at 100 mph heading for an instant >60G stop. Finally, we must realize that amateur experience on any road course is not the issue. Instead we are talking about those who approach the limit every time they’re on the track. These Pro racers are the core of the professional racing industry. Their needs are the standard to which every racetrack must adapt.
Where must we start?
The attitude must shift from the present passive explanations to active change for safety. The needs and the methods are already known. That is why modern racetracks are different in design from the courses of the past. Even with this, increasing performance can “outgrow a design” but only certain parameters change. New courses are safer; let’s make them all safer.
We need run-off. We need to know the best way to groom the gravel traps for autos or for motorcycles. We need to know what happens to the track surface when it rains hard, we need to know that drainage systems work. We need to watch the track surface change after a 24-hour sports car race is run in the summer, and what happens when winter comes with small cracks widening due to ice and thaw. What will happen when the cracks are sealed? We need to know how the margins of the track change at the point of transition from racing surface to the run-off surface. We need to study where the drainage ditches are located.
This takes informed inspection of each track by a combined group of experts, and they already exist: They are the racers, sanctioning body representatives and track managers. They need to understand each others’ problems and concerns and find ways together to find a practical and cost-effective solution.
We must work together in this. We need to act. We need to think clearly and then we must move concrete and dirt. We need to look at what we have done and see if we can improve it further.
As I have said in the past, you’ll never remove the risk of racing, but you can work to make it less dangerous. Let’s apply what we learn from Dale Earnhardt and Daijiro Kato. Let’s learn and work together to avoid killing another Champion.
When must we start?
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