Safety at what cost: Sprint Car Council works to make tracks, cars safer

Sprint Car Council faces hurdles while trying to make tracks, cars safer

For the second consecutive season, the Knoxville Nationals’ world-famous four-wide salute was one driver short on the front row. The sprint car community refers to this structure as the “missing man formation.” The open spots the past two years were in memoriam for Greg Hodnett and Jason Johnson, successful drivers who died as a result of two different crashes in 2018.

The Johnson crash, which occurred at Beaver Dam Raceway in Wisconsin, prompted the formation of the Sprint Car Council, a coalition of sanctioning bodies, tracks, car owners, chassis builders and drivers who intend to meet four times a year to discuss rules, cost containment and safety.

And while the group has only met a handful of times, it has already implemented some changes. 

The 2019 season began with a series of chassis improvements that included an update to the support bar attached to the top rail of 410 sprint cars. The hope, following dialogue from the council, is that the new support bar will keep the driver compartment secure in case of a crash.

“I definitely pay attention to what comes out of these meetings,” Shark Racing driver Jacob Allen says. “As for the cars, I’m not sure how much more they can do. I think the new bars was a good add.”

To Allen’s point, the consensus is that the cars are as safe as they possibly can be given the open-wheel nature of the discipline. Instead, it is the tracks that need addressing the most. Hodnett died when he struck a pit road wall opening at BAPS Motor Speedway in Pennsylvania. The track then spent $25,000 to make safety improvements to that section of the track.

The council intends to target tracks with similar needs, but that’s where things get complicated. If the World of Outlaws or All Star Circuit of Champions mandate that tracks either make improvements or fall off the schedule, that could limit the number of venues where they can race, the costs being too daunting for some tracks that barely have enough to pay sanctioning fees.

“It’s hypocritical,” 10-time WoO champion Donny Schatz says about some of the council’s stated goals. “I’m not an engineer who can tell you what can be done or can’t be done to tracks. I appreciate what they’re trying to do, but to a certain point, this is sprint car racing. It’s not going to be safe. You have to be very careful that you don’t start pricing tracks or teams out. That part strikes me as a little hypocritical.”

But Allen says tracks, as was the case with BAPS, can incrementally improve safety over the next couple of years without incurring one huge upfront cost. After all, every little bit helps.

“I don’t know how to fix any of it,” Allen said. “Maybe it is what it is in sprint car racing. It’s always going to be dangerous. But I hope the tracks that can make some changes do, and maybe that’s what these guys will try to figure out when they meet next.” 

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