This past Monday’s running of the Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway seemed almost surreal in that it appeared to catch a number of drivers off-guard. Crashes, miscues and running the caution laps too close to the jet driers but were a few of the anomalies.
An ex-girlfriend referred to days like this with the statement that “Mercury must be in retrograde”. Obviously that’s bad but perhaps has more meaning if you follow Astrology, which I don’t.
The most notable of the incidents to me was the bizarre crash and an ensuing fire at the start of the race by Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
A hit in the points aside this accident could have been far worse than it was with Earnhardt extricating himself at the speed of light, thus earning him the nickname ‘The Flash’ by several of my journalist friends.
What made this so potentially devastating wasn’t that he made a mistake, which is understandable if the “A” pillar actually impeded his view of the apex of the dogleg, but rather what happened after he had dropped a wheel off the track and shot up the banking into the wall. Earnhardt said:
“Just didn’t see the grass. Didn’t know the grass was down there. With the way the A-post is on these cars you can’t really see that good to that angle. I just didn’t have a good visual of where the apron and the grass was and got down in there pretty good. You can’t run through there they way they have these cars on the ground like that. Just a mistake on my part. I just didn’t know I was that close to the grass, and made a mistake.” Totally believable.
The real disaster potential was once the car had caught fire, he rolled down the track and towards an inside retaining wall, still ablaze, all the while removing the steering wheel and then the seat belts before contacting the retaining wall at roughly 25 to 30 MPH.
With the car still moving, removing the steering wheel is one thing, perhaps he had no real control at that point or was so overcome with the thought of getting out that removing the steering wheel was top of mind.
The major problem was that he began removing the seat belts as well. He succeeded at the very last moment in pulling those belts aside and then grabbed the roll cage bracing for the impact.
Had this car been traveling just a scant few miles per hour faster, Dale Earnhardt, Jr could very well have had a steering column impaled into his chest.
Hindsight being what it is would it not have been more forward thinking to have unhooked the belts first? Of course it would have, but after the initial incident, which Earnhardt said was a mistake, and I don’t doubt him, he was already rattled.
But there may very well be a historical reason for his rapid and visibly shaken actions.
One must remember the incident that took place in 2007 at Sonoma when Dale Jr was to co-drive the factory Corvette in the GTS division of the American LeMans series race. Earnhardt tried to negotiated a corner, lost control and back the Corvette into a wall.
Fuel lines were severed and the Corvette burst into a fireball that looked to be all engulfing and potentially fatal. Indeed it was potentially a life threatening incident, with the flames finding it’s way into the cockpit of the car and putting Earnhardt in the middle of a fire.
This would have shaken any driver, seasoned veteran or not. He suffered injuries that, in the grand scheme of things, were not serious but enough that he was burned on the neck and arms. It effected his Cup performance simply from the pain. The mental damage was, obviously, much worse.
For any driver fire is the one thing that really does scare you, just ask Niki Lauda, who sat in a fire at the Nurburgring for almost one minute and suffered major burns on his face, head and scorched his lungs to the point near death.
In the future when such incidents occur, and they undoubtedly will, let’s hope that the drivers have practiced a way to remove themselves quickly but with some order amidst the chaos.