Safety gear is a good thing,...
Safety gear is a good thing, especially when the car stops crashing and the steel stops bending. Photo by June Boone
Scott Spicer remembers the silence when the rolling stopped. His Limited Late Model had been up in the air and down again three-and-a-half times, and what was left of his race car sat upside down in the Mississippi mud. It had been a violent crash, begun when the rear suspension failed during hot laps at South Mississippi Speedway last summer.
Somewhere in the mle the entire rear end had been torn off. The battery broke free and the wires were hanging down. The fire extinguisher was rattling around inside the car, and Spicer's world was upside down.
"Then I heard this whomp and the world lit up," says Spicer, "and the heat was incredible. The next thing I did was ask God to forgive me for everything I'd ever done wrong."
But Spicer had done one thing right that day, and it probably saved his life.
"I race both a Late Model and a Limited Late Model," he says. "I always wore just one of those inexpensive single-layer firesuits when I ran the Limited, 'cuz I figure you never get going fast enough to get hurt."
But the night of his fiery crash, Spicer was running both cars, and to save time between sessions, he had donned his triple-layer Simpson driving suit. The three layers of protection gave him extra time to stay alive when the rear of his car erupted into a fireball. It allowed him to escape serious injury while other drivers-including his brothers-rushed to his burning car, flipped it back over, and hauled Spicer from the flames.
"I got awful hot," he says. "But the guys who rescued me actually got burned. I didn't."
Somewhere in that fireball,...
Somewhere in that fireball, Scott Spicer is still trapped inside his car. To save time between sessions in his two race cars, the Mississippi driver opted to wear his three-layer firesuit for hot lapping. He figures it saved his life last summer. Courtesy Photo
Today, he has an evangelist's zeal when he preaches about racing safety.
There is nothing more important in a race car than the driver. It is the one part money can't replace. Still, racers spend thousands of dollars for a new engine, hundreds of bucks on the latest tires, and a week's pay for the hot shock setup of the week. Then they strap themselves into a car with worn belts, wear a discount store helmet, and use a fuel tank bought at a marina swap meet.
They cut corners on personal safety, even knowing that in oval track racing, it isn't a question of "if" you will crash but rather "how often" and "how hard."
There are tracks and race organizations that compound the problem with an approach to driver safety that is casual at best. Some track owners figure it is a driver's responsibility to provide his own safety and it isn't management's job to be sure everyone goes home in the same shape they arrived. They also assume that the farther they step back from mandating safety equipment, the less responsibility the track has if someone gets hurt.
That indifferent attitude makes it up to the driver to be sure his backside is covered when the sheetmetal begins to bend and parts start flying everywhere.
NASCAR dragged its heels on mandating safety equipment until the tragic last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. If anything good came from the death of Dale Earnhardt, it was racing's realization that this is a dangerous sport and that people who engage in it can get seriously hurt. It also got people who spent their entire careers making cars faster to begin thinking about how to make them safer.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was among...
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was among the first drivers to embrace the new wave of safety gear, including the HANS Device attached to his helmet. Photo by June Boone
While the sport's premier sanctioning body has taken the lead on improving race car safety, some of the changes and attitudes have been slow to filter down to short track drivers.
"The real problem is there are a lot of drivers who just don't have a lot of money," says Doug Young, general manager of Kirkey Racing Fabrication, among the leading manufacturers of safety seats. "Safety is pricing some of them out of the market. It used to be drivers showed up in T-shirts and jeans and an old motorcycle helmet.
"We are a lot smarter now, but it also costs a lot more to be safe."
Today, when it comes to safety, it doesn't matter if you are in a Late Model or a Legends, pavement or dirt, high roller or just getting by, there are a half-dozen things every driver simply must have before strapping into a race car.
If you shop around (look at the vendors who advertise in Stock Car Racing magazine) you can buy everything you need for about $2,500.
That may seem like a lot of money to a budget racer, but it may be the best bargain in racing. And you have to buy most of it only once because it will last season after season if you take care of it.
"When it comes to safety," Kirkey's Young explains, "it is no place to scrimp."
You don't need to convince Spicer.