What Makes Last Week’s Sprint Car Tragedy So Special?

There’s no denying that last week’s tragedy at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York is horrific.  For those of you who don’t know, Tony Stewart, a very good sprint car and NASCAR driver, had an on-track collision with a fellow sprint car driver, Kevin Ward, Jr.  Ward’s car spun out, hit the wall, and suffered a flat tire.  Ward then proceeded to climb out of his car and stride down the track pointing his finger at Stewart.  As Stewart’s car went by, Ward was struck by the rear right wheel of Stewart’s car, sending him flying a good 20 feet down the track.  Health officials said that Ward was killed on impact.  The result?  A massive internet phenomenon where just about every internet user has become an “expert” on sprint cars overnight.  While I’m not a sprint car expert either, I do find them fascinating.  The reason for this post being almost a week behind the tragedy is that I wanted to put some time behind the incident to gather more information and let everybody cool off.

Here’s what happened – Tony Stewart grew up driving sprint cars until his mid-20’s, when he became heavily involved in NASCAR and IndyCar.  He still drove sprint cars for fun.  After he got out of IndyCar around 2005, Stewart went full-time into NASCAR.  He went into NASCAR’s prestigious Sprint Cup Series, where he won three Cups.  He has won many, many races in NASCAR, sprint cars, and IndyCar.  He may have a reputation for having a temper, but he’s calmed down in the last few years.  According to those who know him and have interviewed him, the man has a heart of gold, but can act impulsively.  When Danica Patrick came to Stewart-Haas racing, Tony personally started coaching her.  He’s been a driving force in sprint car safety measures ever since he suffered a severely broken leg last year in a sprint car race in Iowa.  His broken leg was so bad that it forced him to go around in a mobility scooter for a good 4 months.  He had to miss the rest of the NASCAR season, making him ineligible for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

This year, Tony’s been back with an eye on the prize.  He’s already gotten one pole at a race, and started in the Top 5 4 times.  But, the death of Kevin Ward, Jr. last weekend shook him.  He was scheduled to race the next day at Watkins Glen International Raceway for the Cheez-it 355, but decided not to race after the tragedy the night before.  On Thursday, he released a statement saying that he will not be racing at Michigan International Speedway, and that Jeff Burton will continue to drive his No. 14 Chevrolet SS for the indefinite future.

Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle both grew up driving sprint cars on dirt tracks.  Many drivers like Stewart have humble beginnings on short tracks, or start off in go-karts.  Mostly in NASCAR, it’s the former.  For Tony Stewart, driving sprint cars is just a fun hobby that he does for fun occasionally.  However, he does have a couple of drivers driving sprint cars under his direction from Stewart-Haas Racing.  It’s like Ivan “Ironman” Stewart (no relation to Tony Stewart), who is still an off-road motorsports legend.  Ivan grew up riding motorcycles, and he enjoys riding them across the country with friends when he’s not helping Toyota Racing Development (TRD) with new off-road race trucks.  Back to Tony Stewart.  The tragedy obviously shook him to his core, and I think that he just needs to take a break from racing all together for a while to reorient himself.  I don’t think that he will ever recover from accidentally killing a fellow driver, especially a 20-year-old.  I don’t think that anybody can.

In the aftermath of the tragedy at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, NASCAR has released new on-track protocols for drivers following a wreck.  In a nutshell, drivers are not supposed to exit their car after a wreck unless instructed to by a safety official.  Drivers are prohibited from going onto the track or towards other cars under all circumstances unless it is a safety vehicle.  The reason for this is that some NASCAR superspeedways like Daytona, Talladega, Michigan, Charlotte, Texas, and Homestead-Miami are big enough for cars to reach speeds in excess of 200 mph.  When a caution happens in NASCAR, drivers are only supposed to let off the gas and coast until the pace car comes on the track.  If a driver exited their car at Daytona and started striding towards another car, the result could be disastrous.  Drivers are safer inside of their cars.  NASCAR Sprint Cup Series cars are built to withstand multiple impacts of 200 mph or greater, and still allow the driver to live.  The driver might have an injury like a broken leg or arm, but they will be far better off than dead.  These rules might seem foolish, but they are really only common sense.  There is no logical reason for a driver to approach another car on foot.

Now, let’s talk about sprint cars.  These little things that look like they belong on a WWII fighter plane are tricky and super cool.  Sprint car racing is different than midget car racing.  Midget cars are essentially go-karts with semi-powerful engines (usually a Ford flathead V8 or a GMC “Jimmy” inline-six-cylinder) and dirt or asphalt tires.  They are freakishly fast and unsafe.  Sprint cars are the next step up from that.  These cars define insanity.

There are a couple of different classes of sprint cars:  The craziest class is World of Outlaws, started in 1978.  These cars use a 410 cubic-inch naturally-aspirated V8 (6.7 liters) that can produce anywhere from 900-1,100 horsepower.  These cars do not have a starter, transmission, clutch, or battery.  This means that these cars must get a push from a start truck to get going.  They simply use a driveshaft directly from the engine to the rear axle.  Their left rear tire is 335 millimeters wide (that’s as wide as the rear tires on a SRT Viper!), and their massive right rear tire is 380 millimeters wide.  The class that Tony Stewart races in is called the United Racing Company.  These sprint cars use a 360 cubic-inch V8 (5.9 liters) that is based off of a Dodge/Plymouth design.  That’s where the similarities to the Big 3 end.  These engines are capable of producing anywhere from 700-900 horsepower.  Again, these cars don’t use transmissions, clutches, batteries, or starters.

In recent years, sprint car safety has greatly increased.  Roll cages are now mandatory, as well as fully tubbed chassis’.  Fuel tank bladders prevent fuel leakages, and alcohol-infused fuel is now used.  Six or seven-point safety harnesses are now standard, and drivers are now required to wear a 2-layer fire suit and Nomex gloves.  Full helmets, arm restraint devices, right headrests, and a 1/8 inch-thick rock/debris screen on the front of the roll cage.  Plus, World of Outlaws and United Racing Company require head and neck restraints (HANS devices).

Winged sprint cars are much safer than non-winged sprint cars, due to the fact that the aluminum wings are capable of absorbing a good deal of impact.  When crashes happen, they are often violent, and debilitating injuries in non-winged sprint cars are commonplace.  The safety of winged sprint cars was shown in 2013 when Tony Stewart’s sprint car flipped and hit a safety fence before hitting the ground upside down.  Tony was able to walk away from the crash with only a severely broken leg (okay, maybe hop away).

Any sprint car is capable of reaching speeds of 140 mph or more.  With winged sprint cars, the wings add hundreds of pounds of downforce at speed, making the car easier to control.  Surprisingly, sprint cars are easier to control at higher speeds, thanks to the added downforce.  Sprint cars are mainly steered with the throttle, which is why they are almost always sideways.  They are built to turn left 99% of the time, and side visibility is almost nothing.  NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Greg Biffle also grew up driving sprint cars, and he has said multiple times in interviews that sprint cars need to have better side visibility.  The wings on the sides go down to about head level of the driver, and shorter drivers have no problem with visibility.  What needs to happen with sprint cars is simple:

  • Drivers should NOT exit their car unless it’s on fire.  This would alleviate any repeats of the Ward/Stewart tragedy.  When a car spins out or hits the wall, a caution is called.  Drivers let off the gas, but they still are travelling pretty fast.  Tony Stewart was going about 40 mph when he hit Kevin Ward, Jr.  Even if he was in a street car, Ward would still be dead.  Safety officials can be anywhere on a track like Canandaigua in seconds.  Watch the video, and you’ll see that the safety truck was at the site where Ward was killed in under 10 seconds.  The truck was heading out to help Ward’s car get back to the pits when the accident happened.
  • The wings on the side NEED to be raised about 6-10 inches higher for better visibility.  It won’t make the cars more unstable.  Look at Can-Am McLaren’s of the 1960’s and 1970’s – their wings got higher and higher.  It actually HELPED the car’s stability and downforce!  Sprint cars could benefit from that.  Plus, it will make the cars safer, as there will be more space between the wall/catch fence/ground and the driver.
  • Drivers need to wait until after a caution to talk to race officials about who was at fault in the accident.  It was clear in the Ward/Stewart incident the lap before Ward was killed that Ward bumped Stewart’s car and hit the wall as a result.  Ward was clearly at fault in the accident, but Stewart also used his car to shove Ward’s away from his so that both cars didn’t spin.  It’s a simple maneuver, yet it proved to be ultimately fatal.  Race officials know who did what when, and they will assign points and/or penalties accordingly.  I know that drivers become furious when their car is wrecked, but walking towards the car that wrecked yours is simply not a smart or good way to take your anger out.

I think that in the coming months, many sanctioning bodies of various motorsports will enact rules telling drivers to not exit their vehicles until told to do so by safety officials.  Let me be perfectly clear:  Crew chiefs and spotters are NOT safety officials.  They are there to make sure that you stay out of accidents and win a race.  They are not a track safety official telling you to get out of the car.  I know that humans make mistakes, but Kevin Ward, Jr.’s mistake proved fatal.  There’s no taking back what happened that night, but we can prevent it from happening again.  It’s sad, and my thoughts go out to Kevin Ward, Jr.’s family and to Tony Stewart.  I can’t even begin to fathom how sad Tony Stewart must feel about what happened that night.

I have attached the video of Tony Stewart killing Kevin Ward, Jr.  Please do not watch this video if you felt at all uncomfortable reading this post.  I had trouble watching the video, but I feel that it is important for you to see it.  Viewer discretion is advised when watching this video.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5JNNXXdqM4

The Crash That Changed NASCAR Forever

At Talladega International Superspeedway in 1973, Bobby Isaac heard voices telling him to pull over.  It wasn’t his crew chief, it wasn’t his spotter, but he said that it was a supernatural voice.  Nothing at all was wrong with his car.  But, he got spooked by the voices and quit racing on the spot.  He pulled into pit row, turned the car off, got out, and never set foot in a race car again.

Odd things happen at Talladega all the time.  Fans and drivers joke around casually about the “Talladega Jinx.”  The Jinx itself is standard issue – every track has it in some form or another.  People say that Talladega was once a Native American burial ground and the spirits haunt the track to this day.  As silly as those stories may seem, Talladega has been a haven for mishaps since Day 1.  Larry Smith lost his life there because of a minor-yet-deadly accident.  Davey Allison lost his life there in a helicopter crash.  Side-view mirrors have killed drivers there.  There have been so many infield accidents that I can’t even count how many there are.

But, it was Bobby Allison’s near-fatal crash there in a Grand National-series Buick LeSabre in 1987 that changed NASCAR superspeedway racing forever.  There were no murderous mirrors or supernatural voices.  Instead, a blown tire at 200+ mph sent Allison’s number 22 Buick LeSabre stock car into the air.

The result was sickening.  His car was moving with such momentum that it literally vaporized the catch fence and sprayed the crowd with debris.  Thankfully, two well-placed and tightly-wound cables kept most of the car from landing in the crowd.  The only serious injury was a spectator who lost an eye – sad but not deadly.  Bobby Allison continued to race after the crash at Talladega until the next year, when a career-ending crash at Pocono Speedway in 1988 caused him to hang his helmet up for good.  However, Jinx conspiracy theorists will happily point out to you that his family didn’t escape the Talladega Jinx until 1993, when Bobby’s eldest son, Davey Allison, lost his life in a helicopter crash there, just 11 months after Bobby’s youngest son, Clifford, perished in a massive crash at Michigan International Superspeedway.

In Bobby Allison’s crash, speed was what nearly killed him.  Just a day prior to the race, Junior Johnson, a notoriously reckless driver back in his day, voiced his concerns to NASCAR officials.  They should have listened to him.  Junior Johnson is still one of the most respected figures in NASCAR public circles.  NASCAR executives put on the headphones to ignore the thundering engine of Junior Johnson.  Why?  Because Bill Elliott had just put his car in first place at a screaming 212.8 mph.  Big numbers look good in newspapers.  To put that into perspective, the fastest speed at the Indy 500 the next week was 216.6 mph.  Indy cars are light, small, and maneuverable.  Stock cars are like automotive battleships.  When Bobby Allison hit the fence, NASCAR officials could have faced an accident that could have played out like the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans disaster.  Crazy speeds or not, something had to be done quickly.

To reduce top speeds, the stopgap measure was to implement smaller carburetors.  Teams hated it, not only speed-wise, but because it also hindered the car’s performance in many other ways.  It took a full season to reach an agreement, but when the green flag dropped at the 1988 Daytona 500, each car in the field had a restrictor plate bolted to the intake manifold.  The restrictor plate is still mandatory at superspeedways like Daytona and Talladega, as it greatly restricts the airflow going into the engine.  The result is a significant reduction in top speed.  A restrictor plate is simply a piece of metal with four holes in the center for the air to go through.

Restrictor plates didn’t cure the jinx.  Crowd injuries at Talladega are still far too common.  In that case, why install a restrictor plate at all?  Until his death, NASCAR CEO Bill France, Jr. always said that the restrictor plates were bolted on to improve the show.  To this day, it’s hard to find something more spectacular than NASCAR.  The restrictor plate greatly reduces the airflow going into the engine, so, if there is an accident, the car will not be traveling over 200 mph.  Superspeedways are the only NASCAR tracks that allow the cars to get up to speeds like that.  Plus, there’s no denying the spectator appeal of “The Big One,” the gigantic crashes at restrictor plate events that fans have come to expect and see as for-granted.

Is the Talladega Jinx real?  Um, no.  There’s no supernatural entity plotting over what will happen next at Talladega.  But, the Jinx is well-planted into the minds of drivers and fans.  Either way, restrictor plates are still for this world for a while – superstition or not.

 

 

Coverage from the 11th Annual Peggy Sue All-American Cruise!

Every year, the Peggy Sue All-American Cruise and its related events take over sunny Santa Rosa, CA.  Restored cars, hot rods, low riders, raised Jeeps, and antique American cars are all part of the mix.  We have entered our 1950 GMC 100, “Betsy” twice.  It’s always been a lot of fun for me to see all of the classic cars in the parade or the massive parking lot where they are displayed!  This year, one of my good friends joined me in watching the classic American cars cruise around downtown Santa Rosa.  Revving engines?  Check.  Drunk people yelling at drivers to “Step it up, dude!”?  Check.  Squealing tires?  Check?  The smell of burnt brakes?  Check.  Annoyed and overworked event staff?  Right on.  I know that you are getting bored reading my words about what was going on.  I’ll cut to the chase:  It was a LOT of fun, and you should join me next year.  Enjoy the pictures.

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I don’t know what this Chevy Nova had under the hood, but it sounded NASTY!  Many of the cars at the parade were either restored to Concours-levels or were built for the drag strip.  This one was built to rule the streets.   DSCN1921

This 1959 Chevrolet Corvette is a rare “Fuelie.”  Instead of a carburetor, it has a primitive version of fuel injection.  This particular example was restored to a “Level 1.”  Level 1 means that it is virtually perfect.  That it is.

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This 1966 Chevrolet Biscayne is a powerful, efficient, and stylish family sedan from the muscle car era.  It has a 327 cubic-inch V8 engine and a two-speed automatic Powerglide transmission.  It’s lovely.

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I find it nice that the interior of the same Biscayne matches the exterior of the car.  Even the steering wheel has chrome on it!

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Same car.  This is the model designation.  The car is a barn find from somewhere around Redwood City, according to the owner.  He restored it himself, and he did a very good job of it!

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For those of you old enough, you should remember the aero-wars days, when big engines and aerodynamics were all the rage.  The 1971 Plymouth Roadrunners and Superbirds were the car of choice for many famous NASCAR drivers.  Richard Petty left Ford in 1969 to go to Plymouth.   He did so much better in a Plymouth Superbird that Ford built the Torino Talladega as a response.  This particular Roadrunner has the 440 Six Pack (a 440 cubic-inch V8 with THREE two-barrel carburetors!), which was just one step below the mighty 426 Hemi engine.  It is painted in the iconic Lime Green that is popular with automotive restorers.

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This Corvette is one of the nicest Corvettes that I’ve seen in a LONG time!  It is painted Aqua Blue and Snow White, with a matching interior.  It has the 283 cubic-inch V8 and a four-speed manual.  It is a 1956 Corvette.  The only shame?  That it’s far too nice to tour Route 66 in.

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Sorry about the fingertip on the top of the camera view.  The sun was shining and I REALLY wanted to tell you about this truck!  It’s a 1965 Chevy K10 with the optional 327 cubic-inch engine and a three-speed manual.  It is built to tackle any trail, and take anything that you want with it.  It may not be stock, but it looks like it will outrun just about any Jeep from the same era off-road.

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Remember the Chevy Vega?  If you don’t, it’s okay.  The Vega was powered by a 305 cubic-inch V8.  It was relatively powerful and fast, but it was a minor disaster for Chevy.  This Vega is a 1974 model.  It wasn’t the nicest car there, but it was one of the newer cars there.

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The best part about this 1969 Chevrolet C30 is that it is used a lot.  I don’t know how much, but I have seen it at Sonoma Raceway’s Wednesday Night Drags as a tow vehicle.  It’s the perfect tow vehicle.  It’s got a 350 cubic-inch engine that’s all-original.  So is most of the truck.

DSCN1930This rare 1971 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am is one speedy car.  It’s all stock, and plenty fast that way.  It’s got the 350 cubic-inch V8 engine found in many GM vehicles from 1969-1999.  The top speed is 130 mph.  This car means business.  The lucky driver had to keep the car in first gear.  he also kept touching the brakes because the car wants to leap forward.  Lucky him.

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I’m going to apologize in advance for the direction of the photo.  This 1951 Dodge cab-over semi has been so heavily customized that the only thing original about it is the cab.  That’s it.  The rest of it is custom-built.  The truck is a heavy-duty car-hauler with three axles.  The engine is a brand-new 6.7-liter Cummins Diesel engine that has two turbos instead of one.  Wow!

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While motorcycles aren’t as common in the parade as cars, there were still a good three or four.  This 1946 Indian Roadmaster has the iconic “shovelhead” engine that many motorcycle enthusiasts favor.  This Indian Roadmaster is banana yellow with the “caramel cream” seat.  I like old motorcycles like this.  Maybe some readers will buy me one…

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The Indian logo is still in the original chrome, almost 65 years later.  The gas tank can hold 10 gallons.  It says that on the chrome gas cap.

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I like the way that Indian made the front wheel cover so stylish.  I was talking to the owner for a minute, and I found out that he drove it all the way down to Santa Rosa from Healdsburg.  That’s not a lot of fun on an old motorcycle, yet Indian motorcycles are built to cruise.  I’m guessing that it was probably a comfortable ride down to Santa Rosa.

DSCN1937This 1932 Ford Roadster is a sick hot rod.  The lady standing by the car is the owner.  The car has a Ford 351 Windsor V8 engine.  It has a Jaguar rear end, and a five-speed manual.  This car means business.  I don’t know what I like more:  The mechanical parts of the car, or the exterior?  That’s a decision that YOU will let me know in the comments section…

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This Ford Bronco looks like it came out of some post-apocalyptic movie.  It’s got aggressive tires, a six-inch lift kit, and a 302 cubic inch V8.  I don’t know the exact year, but it looks like it’s from around 1967-8.  This is one nice Bronco.

DSCN1940This is one of the coolest, most amazing Jeep CJs that I’ve ever seen.  And that’s saying a lot.  This CJ is stock, and is a 1947 model.  Between the drivers seat and the passengers seat, there is a metal rifle/shotgun holder for two high-powered guns.  Not that it would be used for that!

DSCN1942How often do you see a stock 1932 Ford roadster?  Not at all often!  This is a stock 1932 Ford roadster that could sell for upwards of $150,000 in its current condition.  It even has the rumble seat and the original interior!  It’s beautiful!

That’s all, folks!

If you would like to check out the Peggy Sue’s Cruise website, it is http://www.peggysuescruise.com/home/