Motorsport Deaths and The Safety innovations that followed

We lost Ayrton Senna in 1994 in San Marino. Seven years later, at the Daytona 500, we lost Dale Earnhardt Sr. A decade after that, we lost Dan Wheldon at an Indycar race at Las Vegas. Four years later, Justin Wilson also died from injuries caused by an accident in Pocono. That same year, we lost young Formula 2 driver Jules Bianchi. Then, just recently, we lost another Formula 2 driver, Anthoine Hubert.

I think Joe Gibbs, former NFL Head Coach and owner of Joe Gibbs Racing in NASCAR, said it best Monday night, after apologizing for celebrating in victory lane with Denny Hamlin, when there was uncertainty that driver Ryan Newman was okay, at the finish of the Daytona 500 this year.

“(In) racing, we know what can happen — We just dream it doesn’t happen”, Gibbs said in his apology, which was published in the Tampa Bay Times.

What he means is crashes like what we saw with Ryan Newman — who hit the wall, went upside down, then got hit in the driver’s side in the process of flipping over — can happen — Everyone just hopes it never does.

The good news is that crashes like these can be prevented — partially because of the aforementioned people who died in the sport. While tragic, they made way for new innovations in the world of motorsports.

For example, in NASCAR, after Dale Sr. died in 2001, an innovation came about that protects the neck. An interview with a driver on WFLA 8 discusses this device, which is called HANS.

“The HANS device is actually made out of carbon fiber, a very strong material,” said Willie Allen Racing driver Jackson Boone. “You’ll put it around your neck, and it catches the latch and it keeps your neck from going completely forward. That way, if there’s an abrupt impact, it won’t give you whiplash or break your neck.”

They even have walls that are less harmful to crash into. They are walls that are called “SAFER” barriers. They are made out of steel and foam, and, according to an ESPN article explaining them, they “absorb kinetic energy released when a racecar makes contact with the wall”.

F1 also has innovations that were being made for safety. I recently watched the documentary from 2010, “Senna”, about Aryton Senna’s life and legacy, and he started something before his tragic death in 1994. Three years earlier, at the 1991 German GP, he made a proposal for a cone be placed to make a run-off area, instead of tire barriers at the chicanes, saying that it blocks the road before rejoining the track. Even today, there are large run-off areas for drivers who miss a corner, not only to prevent damage to the car, butt o also protect drivers from the impact one endures upon hitting the tire barriers.

Today, in the sport of F1, they also have Halo devices on the cockpit of the cars to protect neck injury from flying debris or tires — another great innovation. These proved their worth back in 2018, when they were first debuted. At the start of the Belgian Grand Prix, Renault driver Nico Hulkenburg’s car locked up and ran into McLaren driver Fernando Alonso, who flew into the Halo device of Charles Leclerc, who was driving for Alfa Romeo Racing at the time, protecting him from impact. A reaction from former Mercedes AMG F1 driver Nico Rosberg followed, as he said on Twitter, “We can end the HALO discussion now. It will save lives!”.

Indycar followed suit from F1, with this season seeing the debut of Red Bull Racing Technology’s “Aeroscreen”, which serves the same function as the Halo. They also adopted the aforementioned SAFER barriers.

At the end of “Senna”, there is a small afterword that says, “In the aftermath of his death, the FIA appointed Aryton’s friend Prof. Sid Watkins to improve safety in Formula One. There has not been a fatality in Formula One since.” That means in the 16 years after Senna died, no one else has suffered such a fate.

These deaths were pivotal moments in the history of motorsports. We may not be able to prevent injury from these accidents, but seeing that there are actions being taken to prevent these deaths makes me feel better about watching these sports, knowing that if something does happen, we won’t see a death like Aryton Senna, Dale Sr., or Dan Wheldon again.