Hamlin’s Fiery Crash Good Example Of NASCAR Safety Efforts

Denny Hamlin escaped unscathed from his fiery accident at Michigan largely due to the safety measures taken by NASCAR and some prompt assistance from crewmen along pit road.

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.”

Glenn "Fireball" Roberts was one of NASCAR's biggest stars in the 1960s. His death following a fiery crash in 1964 led to vast improvements in driver safety.


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.


Daytona 1960: I Won, But Only With The Discovery Of The Draft

Few expected Junior Johnson to be competitive in the 1960 Daytona 500. He had picked up a ride at the last minute and his Chevrolet was woefully underpowered.

Junior tried every way he could to get more speed out of the car but to no avail. He thought about pulling out of the race but his team owner, Ray Fox, asked him to stay. Fox said he’d work on the car to get more power.

Junior went back on the track and decided to follow one of the faster cars. To his surprise, he discovered that he could keep up, unlike earlier.
Junior had uncovered the secret of the draft.

Junior’s contributions to motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.

I can understand why we saw all of that two-car drafting in this year’s Daytona 500.

With the way the cars are configured today one car can easily latch on to the rear bumper of another, which creates the draft. But when there’s a third car it just doesn’t work.

The third car gets the wind off the first two cars but the wind can’t stay over the third car. It just comes down on the windshield. That creates so much drag the third car can’t stay in there.

So two cars work better than three – and we saw plenty of evidence of that in the Daytona 500.
The draft has been a big part of racing at Daytona almost from the start.

The first Daytona 500 was held in 1959 and everybody thought it was all about horsepower at that big place. Nobody wanted to follow anyone else. They wouldn’t stay behind anybody.

They never really hooked up. They’d always pull out and try to pass. That’s the main reason no one had any idea about the draft in that first race.

But it was different in the second race in 1960. And I had a lot to do with that.
At the start of the season I didn’t have a ride since Paul Spaulding, my team owner in 1959, had gotten out of racing.

Then I got a call from Ray Fox, a car builder and crew chief in Daytona Beach, Fla. He had gotten what was a spur-of-the-moment sponsorship deal from a guy named John Masoni, who owned the dog track in Daytona.

Ray asked me if I would drive his Chevrolet. I’ve always liked him so I told him I’d come down and see what we could do.

At that time Pontiac had the fastest cars and several good drivers, among them Fireball Roberts and Paul Goldsmith. Since Ray had a Chevrolet, I knew we were going to have our hands full.

That might be an understatement. We were 30 miles per hour slower than the Pontiacs.
I was ready to come home. I didn’t want to stay down there and watch the Pontiacs lap me every 10 or 11 laps.

Ray asked me to stay. He made some adjustments to that Chevrolet and I went back on the track. This time I decided to run along with Pontiac. Maybe I could learn something.

Cotton Owens came by and I got behind him; I got right on his rear bumper. I thought he might pull away, but to my surprise, I stayed right there.

When we got off the track Cotton told me that I really had that Chevrolet hummin’. What he didn’t know was that I had discovered the draft – quite by accident, I might add.

Just to be certain, I went back on the track and, sure enough, the car was very slow. I came to pit road and waited for some Pontiacs to come by. I got in with them when I took to the track and I stayed with them.

I knew then that what was happening. We were creating a slipstream type of thing in which a slower car could keep up with a faster one.

I started ninth in the Daytona 500 and once the race started I got to the Pontiacs ahead of me as fast as I could. I stayed with them and did everything they did. When they pitted, I pitted.

In the closing laps of the race Bobby Johns had the only competitive Pontiac. The others had experienced various problems.

Bobby was getting a push from Jack Smith’s Pontiac – Jack was down and had no chance to win – and got around me. But then, with 10 laps to go, something happened that I had never seen before.

The back glass popped out of Bobby’s car and flew into the air. With the speed and traffic situation I reckon we had created a vacuum that sucked that glass right out.

The change in the airflow around Bobby’s car caused him to spin into the grass along the backstretch. By the time he got himself back on the track I was long gone.

I won the race by a good distance over Bobby. And I know for a fact I never would have if I hadn’t figured out the draft.
And, as you know, the draft has been a part of Daytona ever since.

Drivers? There Were Many Among The Best In My Day

Junior Johnson raced against some of NASCAR’s legends and he obviously did pretty well for himself. But he’s willing to tell you who some of the toughest, and hardest to beat, were. Of course, they had also a hard time getting past him.
In their era they earned his respect and he theirs. He has long since known how racing and NASCAR have changed. As they have done so, it has made the competitors of today, certainly all with talent, a different breed from those of his years. He tells you why.

Junior’s contributions to motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.

I’ve often been asked who some of the best drivers of my era were; the guys I found it most challenging to race against.

Believe me there were many. But when I first started, at the top of the list has to be Curtis Turner. He was probably the toughest guy I ever raced against. He showed a car no mercy. He was a driver who wanted to go to the front and lead every lap – and if his car held up he could do it. That was just his nature.

I’d say Fireball Roberts, to me, was probably second to Curtis – in fact, he was in line with him as he raced the same way. But there were other guys whose success proved they knew how to drive. They include Herb Thomas and Tim Flock. But Curtis, I think, was the most aggressive driver at the time I came into racing.

Then there was Ralph Earnhardt. I’ve always said he was a better driver than his son Dale. Like Curtis, Ralph was one of the toughest competitors I ever raced against.

I think he had a big advantage because he could work on his own cars. He was as great a mechanic as he was a driver. As much as he knew how to drive his car, he also knew how to make it run and handle. And he was just rough enough that he could get you out of kilter then go on and beat you.

If you beat him you had really done a day’s work.

I guess it could be said that I had something of a rivalry with Lee Petty. But as years passed it reached the point where I was friends with just about everybody I raced against. That became, for me, the way it was at that particular time.

Guys like Fireball, Herb, Marvin Panch, Glen Wood, Dink Widenhouse, Buck Baker and many others, we weren’t enemies.

Well, not at least as far as I’m concerned. Now, as far as they were concerned, they might have been ticked off at me from time to time. But when you outrun somebody, basically, they have to come up with some excuse as to why you outran them. They might have just believed I roughed ‘em up a little bit when I went by.

I think the biggest difference between drivers of my era and that of today is simple. The drivers of the past were tougher and rougher. I also think that, day-to-day, they were better.

Don’t misunderstand me. I acknowledge the skills of the competitors of today. Their talents can’t be denied.

But in the past it was simply a harder game that required more raw ability. A driver wasn’t nurtured. He raced because he thought he could.

There were no established developmental leagues. You learned how to drive a fast car by yourself. If you didn’t learn it by the time you decided to race, you’d finish dead last – or worse.

As talented as they are, and even with their competitiveness, the drivers of today race for money. It used to be you raced from the heart. There wasn’t any money.

In the past the vast majority of drivers didn’t make their living in racing. I know I didn’t. Even Curtis didn’t. He had a lot of business enterprises – some good, others not.

Me? Well, I’ll say that my job – and you know what it was – gave me the best experience for racing.

Again, times have changed. I think racing is now as much a business as it is a sport. I can see it both ways. I was around as an owner when racing became a business.

To me, professional football is the closest thing to racing now as far as business goes. I’ll admit that, athletically, football may be more of a sport. But, while each sport has its elements of danger, racing is far more hazardous.

Now that I’ve said that, you know what? Even though they are both part of pretty tough sports, football players get hurt more often than racers do.

That, to me, is one positive result of how times have changed.

NASCAR 2011: Please Have At It

NASCAR cranks off another season this February at Daytona. The trials and tribulations of NASCAR, Formula One, MotoGP and the NHRA are going to last a while. In the meantime Michele Rahal of The Motorsports Channel and http://www.motorsportsunplugged can’t wait for the season to start.

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