Opinion: Hamlin's Injury Should Be Safety Wake Up Call for NASCAR
UPDATE: It was announced Tuesday that Hamlin will be out of the car six weeks due to his L1 compression fracture.
After a last lap crash at the Auto Club Speedway during Sunday's Auto Club 400, Denny Hamlin has been diagnosed with a compression fracture in his lower back.
He is expected to be released from the hospital sometime Monday.
Hamlin was able to exit the car on his own, but left the track Sunday in an ambulance, and was later airlifted to a local hospital for further evaluation.
Once Hamlin is released and returns home to North Carolina, he will visit Dr. Jerry Petty at Carolina Neurosurgery & Spine Associates for further evaluation.
The driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota has since Tweeted several times since being admitted to the hospital. Whether or not Hamlin will miss any races has yet to be determined.
It was the final lap of the Auto Club 400 when Hamlin and former teammate Joey Logano were racing side by side for the lead. Logano slammed into the outside wall, protected by a SAFER barrier, and went on to finish third. Hamlin, on the other hand, hit the inside wall straight on, bouncing back before finally coming to a stop.
The inside wall did not have a SAFER barrier. In fact, several tracks that NASCAR currently race on do not have SAFER barriers all the way around the track.
Many NASCAR fans know of the SAFER barriers, but what do they do, exactly?
The Steel and Foam Energy Reduction barrier "consists of sections of 3/16 of an inch thick steel tubing, 28 feet long and 8 inches by 8 inches in diameter, backed with thick, closed cell foam block and retrofitted to the existing retaining wall of a racetrack." The purpose of the soft wall is "to absorb kinetic energy released when a race car makes contact with the wall." (You can read more about how SAFER Barriers work here and here.)
The barrier is the brain child of the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska and former Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Tony George.
SAFER barriers were installed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2002. They are now installed in every track that the Camping World Truck, Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series visits.
Eldora Speedway, who will host their first Camping World Truck Series race in July, will not have SAFER barriers, but the track has been examined by the University of Nebraska, who said the dirt track would be safe "with or without" the soft walls.
"I believe that the SAFER barrier has out-performed everyone's expectations and, whether the drivers realize it or not, the SAFER barrier has greatly improved their chances of walking away from a major crash," said Dr. Dean Sicking, a civil engineer who helped develop the soft wall, said in 2012.
After this past weekend, drivers probably have little doubt as to how much safer the sport is with SAFER barriers.
However, if NASCAR and the tracks won't install them all the way around the track, they aren't using them to the fullest extent that they should be. If the sanctioning body is going to require that all drivers wear a HANS device, and continually update the cars that drivers use every week to make them safer, why aren't they doing the same thing with the tracks?
"This is something we have never seen here before -- a car hitting in that spot -- or obviously NASCAR would have recommended SAFER barriers be installed there," David Talley, Auto Club Speedway spokesman, said. Talley went on to say that NASCAR determines where the soft walls are installed, and "if additional SAFER barriers are needed in that area, we'll do that."
NASCAR's John Darby also explained on Monday that there were no SAFER barriers in the area where Hamlin hit because areas deemed to have a higher frequency of wrecks "are addressed first" and that "in light of Denny's accident, I'm sure that there will be more investigations done in that area of the race track."
"If", Auto Club Speedway? "More investigations", John Darby? Really? Is there any room for "ifs" after a competitor suffers a serious injury- an injury that could keep him out of competition for weeks, if not months? And why would NASCAR not expect a wreck could happen in that particular spot, when incidents could happen anywhere on the track?
Does something worse have to happen before NASCAR makes these necessary changes?
NASCAR, Auto Club Speedway and International Speedway Corporation, who owns the track, all have the power to fix this. It has been proven time and time and time again that serious injuries can be prevented by a SAFER Barrier being installed at tracks. Yet the sanctioning body still refuses to take the necessary step to make racing that much safer.
Hopefully, after what happened on Sunday, things will change.
Thanks to NASCAR on FOX, NASCAR.com, USA Today, SB Nation, ESPN.com, Yahoo!, RacingMadeSAFER.com, Racing Reference, and The Physics of NASCAR by Diandra Leslie-Pelecky for the information, quotes and statistics used in this piece.