By RJ Valentine
Research indicates that one driver is dying every single month on tracks with outdated barriers. Since January of 2018, 23 racers lost their lives after impacting with concrete, tire packs, guardrails, fences or berms, and those are just the incidents we know of.
Many different factors cause accidents on race tracks, such as car-to-car contact, mechanical failure, loss of control or driver error. Beyond wall-related deaths, there have been countless other racing tragedies as well. Nevertheless, no matter what incited the incident, the root cause of 23 racing deaths in the last 21 months involved an unyielding surface.
Most of the drivers we lost were competing in sanctioned events. Many were pro racers, others might be semi-pro depending on how much time they spend on track, and some were participating in regional club series or vintage events. Then there were those whose luck ran out during a test drive, exhibition run, or coaching lesson. Whether drag racing K-rails are viewed as inevitable or not, there were also four sanctioned events that resulted in death.
Following is an alphabetical list of drivers who were lost to barrier-related incidents since January 2018. My sincere apologies if anyone was missed or for any mistakes or misspellings.
Randy Alexander – May 2018; Ricardo Barahona – April 2018; Mike Corning – May 2019; Melissa Cothran – August 2018; Charlie Dean – October 2018; Bill Egleston – January 2018; Brody Ford – March 2019; Jeff Green – June 2018; Silas Hiscock Sr. – April 2019; Greg Hodnett – September 2018; Anthoine Hubert – September 2019; Jason Johnson – June 2018; Donnie Large – August 2018; Peter London – April 2019; Daley Mathison – June 2019; Kat Moller – November 2018; Ken Rambo – March 2018; Doug Rose – August 2018; Adam Schatz – July 2018; Thomas Thrash – June 2019; Jim Victor – July 2018; J.J. Wilson – February 2018; Billy Young – July 2018
Though pros only represent a fraction of 1% of all racers, they account for at least 17% of this group. While less experienced drivers make up the majority of the population, amateur racing isn’t as high profile, thus doesn’t receive as much attention as it should in the grand motorsports safety scheme. Be that as it may, these fatalities don’t appear to be heavily weighted toward any particular type of racing or level of experience but, they did have one tragic common thread.
Preventable Inherent Dangers
The fact that racing is intrinsically dangerous is a given. But it’s unconscionable to continue accepting fatalities and debilitating injuries as par for the course when many could be prevented if the bulk of America’s race track walls weren’t made of concrete, steel or tires.
Has it ever occurred to anyone that no official track rating system or governing organization for track safety exists? For those drivers who do care about their safety—and there are many—why isn’t there a way to assess potential risks before deciding whether to race on a particular track?
I’ve lost many a night’s sleep, as well as several close racing buddies, over this nightmare that never seems to end. However, I was gratified to hear about a recent motorsports safety forum of medical leaders who discussed procedures and techniques that could help smaller racing series, tracks or events who lack resources. At least then they’ll be able to better treat injuries sustained after impacts with hard walls.
I keep hoping sanctioning bodies, series, circuits, or maybe even the drivers themselves, will take charge of this fixable issue. Though a handful of major sanctions like NASCAR, the FIA, IndyCar, and the Sprint Car Council have taken responsibility for safety mandates, there are still countless other sanctioning bodies and associated series who haven’t. I’m still counting the years that go by as we wait for track safety to trickle down…and counting the number of drivers lost each month.
Money is not the object
The industry’s overwhelming concern is invariably for the financial well-being of struggling venues. Okay, then let’s figure out how to subsidize track improvements. We’ve already invested in equipment and vehicle safety upgrades, so the next logical step is to invest in the facilities themselves.
Perhaps a “driver safety fund” could be established and administered either by a free-standing entity or through individual sanctions. There are at least 2000 professional racers in the primary series, but the bigger numbers are in amateur racing. The combined membership of just three of the sanctioning organizations—Porsche Club of America, BMW Car Club of America and Sports Car Club of America—tops a quarter of a million. If even 1% contributed $50 each, $125,000 would be pledged for safety improvements. There are myriad ways funds could be raised to support enhanced safety measures. While creating and managing these programs would take a lot of work, the benefits would be easily measured by the number of lives saved.
Roadblocks and Research
In 2018, I formed Racing Safety United (RSU), of a volunteer-based alliance of 34 representatives from across all areas in motorsports whose mission statement reads “Improve driver protection to reduce injuries, concussions and fatalities at all levels of racing.” This new group has been working hard to further racing safety, but has already hit some of the same roadblocks that have historically held back change. For example, in an effort to acknowledge America’s safest race tracks, RSU developed a new track safety award program. Ironically, some track owners expressed concern over being recognized for making safety improvements for fear it might raise flags with insurance providers. So much for the positive approach.
RSU will soon be releasing the results of an extensive driver safety survey. Though not completely finalized, the preliminary feedback is quite telling. When asked whether drivers considered some race tracks more dangerous than others and why, the answers from both pros and amateurs alike pointed to the same circuits, as well as to the exact same hot spots on those courses. To verify these responses, we researched the history of fatalities and serious accidents at these tracks and at which turns or sections of the track they occurred. Low and behold, the surveyed drivers were right.
On the other hand, though surveyed fingers pointed at specific tracks and was supported by validating data, the true scope of the track safety issue isn’t fully represented. There are multitudes of lesser-known venues that are equally, if not more dangerous than tracks mentioned in the survey. Yet, due to much lower event and participant volumes, they are less likely to be identified. Regardless, almost every driver knows which tracks are riskier than others.
Not to give away too many survey details before it’s released, but most respondents indicated that barrier improvements were a high priority, and many would consider contributing to an official motorsports safety fund to help tracks make these improvements.
Advocating for Safer Racing
I’ve been in love with this sport for over 40 years, but I’ve had enough of its deep-seated denial and penchant for secrecy. From the beginning, motorsport professionals have been reluctant to speak out about safety concerns. I’m well aware that this article may ruffle a few feathers and solidify my reputation as an agitator when, in actuality, I’m simply advocating for the protection of life and limb where ever possible.
How can we stop the killing without killing the excitement? What can we do to eliminate disabling injuries without crippling the motorsports industry? Who will take a stand against unnecessary harm? Continuing to ignore the problem isn’t going to make it go away. Regardless of “assumed risk,” it doesn’t make sense to take lives for granted, even your own. There may be backlash for speaking my mind, but at least I’m attempting to address a preventable hazard that’s been the cause of severe injuries and lost lives for over half a century. If I’m going about it wrong then, by all means, tell me, and let’s work together to find a better way.
About Richard “RJ” Valentine
Richard J. Valentine combined his passion for business and auto racing to achieve remarkable success in both fields. As a driver, he’s been a major player in competitive racing for four decades with over 400 pro starts, culminating with a win at the prestigious Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. Valentine continues to be a force on the track and, when he realized there was a dire need for a better barricade system, he took it upon himself to invent one. In 2000, Valentine founded Impact Safety Systems (ISS) Barriers for the express purpose of setting new standards in driver protection. A native of Boston, Valentine now lives in Hingham, Massachusetts.