Even as NASCAR's popularity was in the process of soaring to heights never before seen and likely never to be seen again, the turn of the century was not kind to the sport.
In 2000, during separate incidents in practice sessions at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (then named New Hampshire International Speedway), drivers Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin died in accidents at almost precisely the same spot on the track, Petty in May and Irwin in July. Later that year, in October, Truck Series driver Tony Roper died in an accident during an actual race at Texas Motor Speedway.
All of this preceded Dale Earnhardt's shocking death in an accident on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 the following February.
Since then, and primarily because of those four deaths in a terrible eight-month span, there is no question that NASCAR has poured millions of dollars and countless man hours into making the sport safer. But as the Sprint Cup Series prepares to revisit the New Hampshire track this weekend, the 14th anniversary of Irwin's death, a legitimate question is being raised once again.
Are NASCAR tracks doing enough to protect the drivers?
Some of the drivers aren't so sure. Many of them argue that tracks should be making sure SAFER barriers—steel and foam energy-reducing walls that reduce the amount of impact when cars hit them and that might have saved the lives of some or all of the four drivers who perished from 2000 to 2001—should be installed on every inch of exposed concrete at every track.
For various reasons, some that seem to make sense (like not installing them in areas where they might interfere with the ability for emergency vehicles to get on the track in a timely manner) and others that don't (such as cost or being reactionary instead of proactive, where tracks tend to fix selected areas and then others only after the fact following an accident), that isn't the case.
When ESPN's Marty Smith recently broached the subject of whether NASCAR and its tracks were doing everything they could to protect their greatest assets, the drivers, Kevin Harvick's response was blunt and somewhat bone-chilling.
Other drivers applaud NASCAR's governing body for working closely with safety groups and the tracks—so much so that some of them, six-time champion Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano included, insist that the sport is safer than professional football, according to AutoRacingDaily.com.
"We may look crazy going 200 miles per hour but I would much rather hit the wall at 200 than have a 300-pound linebacker coming at me," Logano said after visiting with the NFL's Washington Redskins for a day.
Last month, at a press conference at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania, Johnson added his thoughts (per AutoRacingDaily.com): "I agree with that. I think that's the case. I feel like what took place around 2000 and on and the changes that we've made, there are a lot of stats to show that."
Indeed, Dean Sicking, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Alabama-Birmingham who helped NASCAR install many SAFER barriers from 2003 through 2007 while working as the director of Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, told Smith and ESPN.com that he believes SAFER walls have helped save several lives in the last 14 years.
And there are drivers, such as David Reutimann and Michael McDowell—two drivers who were involved in serious accidents—who back him up with their own personal stories, as told to Smith in the ESPN.com article.
"SAFER barriers pretty much saved my life twice," Reutimann said.
At the same time, Sicking and others, including many of the drivers, have continued to accurately point out that SAFER barriers, while important, are only part of the overall improved safety picture. Johnson and Logano, for instance, have repeatedly stated that likely the greatest safety improvements have come in terms of how the stock cars they race are now constructed to better absorb and dissipate contact, as well as in improved head-and-neck and overall belt-restraint systems.
But the bottom line is that Harvick and others who have expressed concern about SAFER barriers not being installed everywhere they could be—as NASCAR president Mike Helton publicly promised in December of 2003, per Smith's ESPN.com article—have legitimate complaints.
Denny Hamlin, for instance, smashed into a wall not protected by a SAFER barrier and broke his back at Auto Club Speedway last year. And then Harvick wrecked in this year's Daytona 500 and took a hard hit after plowing into an inside portion of a wall inexplicably not protected by a SAFER wall.
Harvick lashed into NASCAR and track officials afterward, suggesting that they use some of the $400 million earmarked for an upgrade to the grandstands at Daytona International Speedway to improve driver safety.
"The tracks, for the most part, don't listen to really anything unless it's profitable for their shareholders," Harvick told USA Today and other media gathered at Phoenix International Raceway the following week. "When you see somebody spending $400 million dollars on their track and they don't have soft walls around the inside, maybe they could spend $403 million to go ahead and finish the inside of the superspeedway there at Daytona."
Harvick argued then that tracks, and the sport itself, simply cannot afford to be selective about where they install SAFER barriers. What he was saying, in effect, is that NASCAR needs to finally follow through on the promise Helton made more than a decade ago.
"I know they have data that shows where the most frequently hit spots are, but we wear all this safety equipment and do all the things that we do to these racetracks for that one freak incident to keep things from happening like (what) happened back in 2001," he told USA Today. "So it shouldn't even be a debate. It's just one of those things I guess that you just wait around for something else to happen and then they'll fix it."
Let's hope that isn't the case.
This much is clear: As much as NASCAR and its tracks are doing in a sport that can never be completely safe, there is always more that can and should be done.
Unless otherwise noted, information for this article was obtained firsthand by the writer.
Joe Menzer has written six books, including The Wildest Ride, which examines NASCAR's long history of grappling with safety issues. He now writes about NASCAR and other sports for Bleacher Report, and he can be followed on Twitter @OneMenz.