Safety has always been a NASCAR concern from the day it was officially incorporated in Daytona Beach in February of 1948.
Early on, doors on race cars were strapped shut, right front wheels were re-enforced and, even though a bit primitive compared to current standards, liquid fire extinguishers were available at trackside during every race.
Fire has been a real concern from day one – even more so after the death of star Fireball Roberts.
The Florida native, who was dubbed the Dale Earnhardt of the 1960s, succumbed to pneumonia resulting from severe burns suffered six weeks after a horrible, fiery crash during the 1964 World 600 at Charlotte.
His tragic death prompted the development of fireproof driver suits and rubber-lined fuel cells.
Sixty-four years of NASCAR racing has helped to make today’s cars incredibly safe. Lessons have been learned that help give each driver a measure of peace of mind during every lap he turns.
Sunday’s race at Michigan included a few stressful moments – especially when a fire on pit road erupted in Denny Hamlin’s Toyota after his spin on lap 132 of the 200-lap race.
Hamlin battled for position and, while coming off the third turn, his car dropped to the bottom of the track and went into the grass, causing a good bit of body damage to the driver’s side.
Hamlin briefly came to a halt at the end of pit road. However, it was believed that during the crash the oil cooler may have broken loose and caused a huge fire in the engine compartment and underneath the car.
Hamlin was unaware of just how big the flames had erupted, but since he was on pit road, there was plenty of help getting the Chesterfield, Va., driver unstrapped, disconnected and to safety.
Hamlin was momentarily lost in the thick cloud of smoke but stepped away as firemen on pit road jumped into action. Even though the fire was quickly extinguished, it did cause a few anxious minutes for nearby crewmen.
Hamlin was interviewed shortly afterward. Even though he lost precious Sprint Cup points due to his 34th-place finish, he was still able to smile.
“There’s a lot of good safety stuff and I’ve got to thank all of the crew guys that hauled ass over there and got me out,” Hamlin said. “It was just a tough day. We just didn’t have the track position and got caught twice with those cautions when we pitted.
“It was just a tough day for our car. I thought we had a car that could run top-three or four at times, but just didn’t have a great day and on fire is not a good way to end it.”
According to Hamlin, it was Ryan Newman who got him out of shape on the track. It should be noted that Newman’s Stewart Haas Racing crew also helped get Hamlin out of the car when his life was in danger.
“One good thing at least is that Ryan’s guys came and got me out and so did a couple of the 18 (Kyle Busch) guys,” Hamlin said. “NASCAR is a family and any time anyone is trouble, everyone is going to go try to help. It’s good that those guys were around and were willing to take a chance.”
When asked to describe what it’s like to be strapped inside a burning race car, Hamlin said it was a new experience for him.
“I’ve never actually been in that position before,” he said. “I’d seen it with other guys, but I’ve never known what it’s actually like, but it gets hot.
“I thought for a second there I was OK. It was just in the back and then something exploded in the front and it caught on fire.
“Thankfully we got everything that we have safety-wise. I messed up Greg Biffle’s pit box. It was just one of those days. I’ll be glad to get out of Michigan.”
Hamlin also described what put him in a position to get into the wild spin.
“We were all scrambling on restarts – everyone is doing everything they can to get position,” Hamlin said. “Unfortunately, with the tire change we had, it forces everyone to be aggressive like they were on restarts.
“We were four-wide and I was on the bottom line, but Ryan tried to stick it right there in the very, very low line and there just wasn’t any grip down there.
“There’s not any rubber down there so there was no way his car was going to stick. I knew I was in trouble being on top of him.
“When he slid up into us, it just spun us around. Evidently it knocked something off with either the oil or the fuel, it caught on fire and that was OK, but when I stopped – I don’t know why – it completely engulfed the whole car.”
With speeds at the newly paved Michigan track reaching 210 mph in the turns, the decision was made to make a change to a harder tire compound, again as a safety measure for the drivers.
Of course, any unexpected changes during a race weekend can present real challenges to drivers and teams. Fortunately, there were no multi-car wrecks and no hard crashes suffered by any drivers.
Hamlin attempted to put his day into perspective.
“Part of it was frustrating, but you’re going to have days like this,” Hamlin said. “Unfortunately, NASCAR and Goodyear were put in a tough spot yesterday and had to change tires. I thought our Camry was great until they changed the tire and then we just struggled.”
NASCAR should be commended for its steady efforts to keep every competitor safe.
There is evidence those efforts have paid off – especially during those heart-pounding moments when a potential crisis develops quickly.