The Incidents that Changed Motorsport: NASCAR
Five drivers. Two years. One neglectful organization.
In every racing series, from beginner karts to Formula One, there exists an inherent danger. Anytime a driver slips behind the wheel of a racing machine, they put their lives on the line. Even in today's modern age of safety, brutal accidents can still occur. With respect to the drivers that will be mentioned in this article and their families, I will not be showing any footage or photographs of their incidents. This series of articles will cover key accidents from the respective histories of NASCAR, NHRA, WRC, Indycar, and Formula One. All of these accidents helped revolutionize safety in their own sport or across motorsports as a whole.
The Forgotten Four
Adam Petty (Left), Kyle Petty (Middle), and "The King" Richard Petty pose for pictures at Daytona. Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Sun.
When the topic of motorsport changing accidents comes up in conversation, it is hard not to immediately mention the incident that occurred on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. With Dale Earnhardt Incorporated (DEI) teammates Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. leading during the closing laps of the race, and bossman Dale Earnhardt Sr. running in third, it seemed like the perfect ending to help forget the bore-fest the year prior. However, as the trailing pack began to bunch up, entering turn four, Sterling Marlin made slight contact with Dale Sr's left rear. At speeds nearing 200 miles per hour, Dale attempted to correct the course of his car as it was sent down to the apron of the track. His iconic black #3 then went back up the track before getting tagged by an unknowing Ken Schrader, which caused him to hit head-on. Dale Earnhardt, one of only two drivers (at the time) to have won seven championships, was dead at the age of 49. Many cite this accident as the deciding factor in the mandatory implementation of the HANS device in NASCAR. However, even as one of stock car racing's greatest legends was being laid to rest, NASCAR's administrators still refused to budge. What many casual fans do not know about this story is that there were three major warnings that went unheard before Daytona. Signs that, if heeded, would have saved the life of Dale Earnhardt, as well as four other drivers. Their names are Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr, Tony Roper, and Blaise Alexander.
Being the grandson and great-grandson of two of the greatest stock car drivers in the history of the sport, Adam Petty immediately had expectations to meet as soon as he stepped into a race car. With him achieving great success at the junior levels of his career, the newly turned 18-year-old Adam would join the ARCA series in 1998. It would not take long for Adam to continue his success, as he would win the Easycare 100 at Lowe's Motor Speedway (now Charlotte Motor Speedway) a short time after debuting for the series. The next year, he would move full-time to the NASCAR Busch Series, one step away from climbing to the top of the NASCAR ranks. In his first start at Daytona, he would finish an impressive sixth and score his best finish (fourth) later on in the season at Fontana. Sadly, Petty Enterprises was not one of the top teams in the series. This, alongside Adam's bad luck when it came to being involved in pileups and the car's reliability, resulted in him only finishing 20th in the 1999 standings. With another full-time Busch season on the horizon and a proposed seven starts in the Winston Cup Series, 2000 was set to be Adam's year to shine. After a rough start to the Busch Series campaign, it was finally time for the young Petty to make his Cup Series debut. At the 2000 DirectTV 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Adam managed to drag his underperforming car through qualifying and into race day. After running mid-pack for the majority of the race, his engine gave out on him, and he would finish 40th. This race was won by another young rising star that came from a legendary racing family, a kid named Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Adam Petty in the pits during the Busch Series season opener at Daytona. Photo courtesy of Fox Sports
A little over a month later, the Busch Series would travel to Loudon, New Hampshire for the Busch 200. It would be here, during a practice session for the event, where Adam's No. 45 would spear headlong into the turn 3 wall. This, of course, was before the SAFER barrier and the HANS device were ever implemented, so there was nothing to help ease the impact of the horrendous crash. The 19-year-old Adam Petty, who had the potential to become one of the greatest drivers of his generation, was killed instantly by a basilar skull fracture. The cause of the crash was attributed to the car's throttle somehow sticking wide open as he approached the corner. However, on July 2nd, 2000, NASCAR officials reported that there were no signs of mechanical issues. These remarks were backed by NASCAR's President Mike Helton, even as Adam's crew protested their "findings." NASCAR made no effort in implementing safety improvements after Adam's fatal crash, citing it as a "freak accident." At the same time, multiple drivers were having similar accidents. Even before Adam's accident at New Hampshire, their throttles were sticking wide open. Some drivers were getting injured, but in Mike Helton and his underlings' eyes, as long as no one else died and hurt the image of NASCAR, it was fine. Only eight weeks later, on the same track, at the same corner, another "freak accident" would occur and take the life of the 1998 Cup Series Rookie of the Year.
Kenny Irwin after taking one of his three pole awards for Robert Yates Racing. Photo courtesy of Fox Sports.
On July 7th, 2000, Kenny Irwin Jr, a former Robert Yates Racing driver who scored eight top tens and three poles with the team, was driving for Team SABCO in their No. 42 Bellsouth car. This was a step down from the performance he once had at RYR, but even so, he scored a fourth-place finish at that year's Talladega race. During this time, Chip Ganassi had bought a majority share within the team, which undoubtedly meant a team shakeup was soon to take place. This left Kenny's seat possibly at risk. At 11:23 AM, Kenny Irwin's green, orange, yellow, and blue No.42 smashed head-on into the turn 3 wall. The same exact spot where Adam Petty lost his life just eight weeks prior. When safety crews arrive at the scene, the 30-year-old was unresponsive. Around 3 hours later, Kenny Irwin Jr. was pronounced dead. In a span of just 56 days, NASCAR had lost two of its brightest rising stars. Originally, the cause of death was ruled crushed skull, but would later be corrected to be a basilar skull fracture (the same injury that took Adam Petty's life). The reason behind Kenny's crash, officially, is unknown. According to the local police chief, NASCAR officials contacted his department two hours after the accident had occurred, which was far too late to do a thorough investigation. Just like Petty's crash, it is widely believed that the incident was caused by a stuck throttle. The very next day, during the Craftsman Truck Series race, going into turn 3, driver Dennis Setzer's throttle stuck. The same turn, the same cause, but thankfully, not the same outcome. Dennis would miraculously walk away from his crash with minimal injuries.
After these two fatal accidents, drivers were still having their throttles stick on them. NASCAR executives continued to sit on their hands until they finally released new mandates over a month later in August of 2000. A part of these new mandates included the introduction of a new "kill switch" in reach of the driver's thumb, as well as an independent travel stop for all throttles. During this time, the HANS device was beginning to catch on within other motorsports. Both CART and Formula One began looking into making the device mandatory for future seasons, whereas NASCAR continued on as normal. Along with this, some drivers were asking NASCAR to implement some form of padding to the concrete walls that lined certain tracks. President Mike Helton, however, insisted that it was not necessary to do so. Instead, they changed some of the aerodynamic and engine features on the cars themselves to help slow the cars down. A little while after this, an update to the "kill-switch" is released. This would now automatically kill power to the engine if the throttle and brake are simultaneously near max input. Sadly, this would not prevent the third fatal accident of 2000 from occurring at Texas Motor Speedway in October.
Tony Roper posing in front of one of his trucks in the paddock area. Photo from Wikipedia.
On October 13, 2000, long-time truck series regular Tony Roper would take to the track for the O'Reilly 400 at Texas Motor Speedway. The penultimate round of the 2000 season would cap off a rough year for the 35-year-old, as his four-race season had not gone as he would have hoped. The part-time schedule was not easy going due to an uncompetitive machine and a run of bad luck. He manages to put the No. 26 truck 15th at the end of qualifying, leaving the door open for a possible top-ten during the race. On lap 33 of the race, Roper tags Steve Grissom's front bumper as he tries to squeeze between him and Rick Ware for an overtake along the front stretch; this sends his truck careening into the wall head-on. After coming to rest at the meeting point of the infield grass and the asphalt, the window net does not come down, and there is no radio contact from Roper. Tony would be transported to a nearby hospital, where he would succumb to his injures the next day. Unlike Adam and Kenny's crashes at Loudon earlier that year, he did not sustain a basilar skull fracture. However, he did suffer major neck injuries which caused his death. As the season draws to a close, and the offseason rolls on, NASCAR makes no attempt to improve safety at the tracks or in the cars in preparation for next year's campaign. Before anyone knows it, it is time for the 2001 season to begin with the "Great American Race"... the 2001 Daytona 500.
NASCAR President Mike Helton (Left) and Dr. Steve Bohanon (Right) address the media following Dale Earnhardt's fatal accident at the 2001 Daytona 500. Photo courtesy of ESPN.
"This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements I have personally ever had to make, but after the accident at turn four at the end of the Daytona 500... We've lost Dale Earnhardt." NASCAR President Mike Helton had just shocked the racing world. A seven-time NASCAR champion who was only equaled by Richard Petty in that category, and one of the most popular drivers on the grid for decades, was gone in an instant. A crash that seemed rather tame, even when re-watching it almost two decades later, had resulted in the death of one of the greatest of all-time. Now, NASCAR had no choice but to do something about the safety of their drivers. The tally of premier series drivers who had been killed since the start of the new millennium was now at a total of four. Adam, Kenny, Tony, and now Dale. It took NASCAR losing its GOAT for the administrators to finally act. However, the progression of safety measures would be mulled over at a snail's pace. Mike Helton and the NASCAR heads had not learned. Almost eight months later, one final driver would fall victim to their negligence. Blaise would be the straw that broke the stubborn camel's back.
Blaise Alexander being "interviewed" by World Championship Wrestling (WCW) wrestler Jeff Jarrett during the 2000 Busch Series season. Photo from Pinterest.
A native of Montoursville, Pennsylvania, Blaise Alexander was another young driver who had a lot of promise attached to his name. He bounced between both the NASCAR Busch series and the independent ARCA series for many years, as he competed in a total of 133 races between the two series. On October 4th, 2001, the 25-year-old would take the green flag at Lowe's Motor Speedway for the Easycare 100. He would start fourth on the grid for the night race, on the outside of eventual race winner, Kerry Earnhardt. The elder son of his late father, Kerry would lead a total of 46 laps during the race, constantly trading P1 with the young Alexander. With only four full laps to go, the battle between Blaise and Earnhardt began to intensify, as the race win was now on the line. As they entered the tri-oval, about to start lap 64, Blaise tries to complete an overtake on the inside of Earnhardt's No. 2 machine. As they come to the first kink in the tri-oval, a slow car begins to back off on the inside a little further up the track, causing Blaise to take to the middle. However, Blaise had not yet cleared Earnhardt's front end as he began to move towards the centerline. Inevitably, they touch. In almost a clone of Tony Roper's accident at Texas just under a year earlier, Alexander's Pontiac careens headlong into the outside retaining wall. Earnhardt also hits hard, flipping onto his roof before coming to a halt near the infield grass, but was unharmed. Further back, on a narrow strip of tarmac in between two sections of grass, Blaise's No. 75 car lies in shambles. By the time crews got to the two sites, Kerry had already clambered out of his overturned car and was making his way to Blaise's wrecked car, but was stopped by NASCAR officials. Alexander was taken to the infield care center, where he was pronounced dead later that evening. The cause of death was ruled a basilar skull fracture, the same injury that killed Petty, Irwin, and Earnhardt had struck again. This was the accident, even though it did not take place within any of their own series, that forced NASCAR's administration to finally mandate the HANS device. Along with this, tracks would start to be fitted with softer barriers, to help prevent such hard hits from having the same devastating impact. Even though progress was slow, all tracks that the top three NASCAR series (Cup, Xfinity, Trucks) visit all have SAFER Barriers or other forms of soft walls integrated into their circuit.
Ryan Newman flips through the air after being hit by Corey LaJoie at the 2020 Daytona 500. Photo courtesy of Fox Sports.
Since that tragic night in Charlotte, Blaise Alexander was the last driver to pass away as a result of injuries sustained in a top-tier stock car racing accident. However, even though it was been almost two decades since the accident, NASCAR might not have learned their lesson. At the 2020 Daytona 500, Roush Fenway driver Ryan Newman had one of the worst accidents in recent memory. Coming to the chequered flag, Ryan Newman (who was leading the race at the time) was turned whilst trying to block a charging Ryan Blaney, spearing into the outside wall at terrifying speed. The car spun around before flipping on its roof as it reentered the racing line. As the No. 32 of Corey LaJoie tried to avoid other drivers by swinging to the outside, he unintentionally lined up at dead center with Newman's driver side (left side) door. With Corey still going SuperSpeedway speeds, he collides with the No. 6 of Newman, sending the Roush-Fenway Ford barrel-rolling up and over his own car before slamming back down on its side. As the car continues to slide, a fuel fire erupts from the rear of the car as the crowd begins to realize the gravity of what they are witnessing. Miraculously, most of the fuel that was gushing out of the fuel tank did not get set alight, and crews arrived to extinguish the smaller blaze. In modern racing, we are spoiled to drivers walking away from wrecks that seem unsurvivable, this was not the case on this chilly February evening, however. Newman was carefully extricated from his mangled machine and taken to a nearby hospital. In one of the most sensational stories to come out of modern racing, Newman not only survived but was released from the hospital less than two days afterward. Newman did suffer a concussion during the crash but received no other major injuries as a result of the wreck. It has been said that if Newman's car had pivoted slightly one way or the other, another driver would have certainly been lost.
So, how did NASCAR handle this? Well, if you have read the earlier parts of this article, you can probably take a good guess. They chalked it up as another "freak accident" that has a very rare chance of occurring again anytime soon. Let's hope that, this time, they are right. Their coverage of this accident was also, to put it lightly, utterly tasteless. From the moment LaJoie hit Newman to the point where even the producers started to worry, the cameras were rolling and zoomed in on the smoldering wreckage. Before anything was known about Ryan's condition, NASCAR had plastered it all over their social media. NASCAR is known for its "crash porn", but continuing to film one of the worst crash scenes of the last decade of stock car racing, as well as replaying the impact over and over, is rather disturbing. As someone who has watched racing since birth, I have seen some horrifying crashes, some of which have sadly resulted in a driver losing their life. On most of these occasions, once the organization has realized the enormity of the situation, they will cut away and remain somber until something is known. NASCAR, as well as some of their fans, have become desensitized to these monumental crashes and see their sport as infallible. I think there were some of us who thought about that with modern open-wheel racing as well until the incident at the Japanese GP of 2014 occurred. Racing will never be 100% safe and being complacent with the risks you run by not looking into these major incidents to try and improve your sport is utterly moronic. As seen in the early 2000s, complacency kills.
As mentioned before, racing will never be perfectly safe. Drivers will always run the risk of injury, or worse, every time they step behind the wheel of a racing machine. We have certainly come a long way in just two decades, with safety measures such as the HANS device and the SAFER Barrier all saving (most likely) dozens of lives since their implementation. Sadly, these advancements needed a catalyst to protect the next generations of racing icons. Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr, Tony Roper, Dale Earnhardt Sr, Blaise Alexander, and others all paved the way for the future of motorsports. These men's legacies shall never be forgotten, their stories shall never go untold. These men all unknowingly gave everything for the safety we see in racing today. May they never be forgotten.
Thank you for reading, if you would like to watch a great documentary on this topic, check out Brock Beard's "Three Before February" on YouTube.