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The NFL Should Look to NASCAR for Safety Inspiration

Getty Images for NASCAR

This past Sunday was the Daytona 500. The Super Bowl of NASCAR. 

The headline on Monday at read "One for the Books" and it certainly was. Trevor Bayne, a 20 year old driver, became the youngest to ever win the Daytona 500. A less restricted engine lead to an unprecedented style of two car drafting and numerous crashes.

But the biggest headline of "Speedweek" was the 10 year anniversary of Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s tragic death at Daytona. February 18th, 2001 marks a day in NASCAR history that forever changed the way they looked at safety. In the past 10 years, NASCAR has mandated head and neck restraint systems such as the HANS device, developed carbon fiber seating, created the "Car of Tomorrow" which features better impact resistance in the side panels of the car and a more robust front and rear clip, and developed (in partner with Indianpolis Motor Speedway) a "SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barrier".

All of this has happened in the past 10 years, in the wake of Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s death. I just hope that the NFL doesn't have to deal with a death on the field to kick start their player safety initiative.

Stay Ready So You Don't Have to Get Ready

Now, I know what some of you are thinking.... "the NFL is already ahead of the curve when it comes to safety."

That's exactly what NASCAR thought before Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed. There's no need to get lulled into complacency. NASCAR really were taking steps to improve safety prior to the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. There's no denying it. They started to slow the cars down using smaller carburetors (1987) and eventually restrictor plates (1992) at large tracks such as Daytona and Talladega because cars were going way too fast, becoming planes on wheels - flying off the track as soon as they got sideways or backwards. They put inner liners (invented in 1966) in racing tires so that when a car blew out a tire at high speeds, they would still have some control of their cars and avoid a head on collision with the wall.

This stuff happened well before Dale Earnhardt Sr. died. They weren't standing idly by as drivers became seriously injured or died in the mid-1990s. They were doing what they thought they needed to do in order to improve safety, but not with the urgency that we saw AD (After Dale).

Head and neck restraint systems were available to all NASCAR drivers in 2001, but they were not a mandatory piece of equipment. Dale Earnhardt Sr. didn't want head and neck restraint (and neither did many other drivers) because he wouldn't be able to turn his head in the car and see other drivers around him. Is that reasonable? Sure, but it came with consequences. 

The real question is this... Where do you draw the line between performance and safety? Is having your head restrained in a race car a competitive disadvantage? Of course it is. But when you make it the same for every person, then it isn't an advantage or disadvantage for anyone.  Do you lose over a foot of track space by putting SAFER barriers up all over the place? You sure do, but every car has to race the same track, so it doesn't matter.


Where does the NFL draw the line?

The same goes for the NFL. Is putting hip pads on uncomfortable? Some players say it is, but guess what? It's safer. By making the equipment on NFL players mandatory for all players, you are eliminating potential competitive advantages for players who don't wear it (for whatever reason) and you are also doing your sport, players, coaches, and fans a service by keeping the players as safe as you possibly can.

"We do have personnel at every gme that makes sure that the pads are worn. They aren't required. We think they should be required. We believe we need to make them mandatory. With players, you're going to have the situation 'safety vs performance'. We think you can do both."

-Roger Goodell

You absolutely can do both. The players need to know that the NFL has their safety in mind. Pads exist for a reason - to cushion impacts to different parts of the body. By leaving those pads in your locker, you're not making a commitment to your own safety. Don't blame the NFL for that.

With that said, I think that the NFL has a lot to improve on. They're helping to spearhead a lot of concussion research and they have worked with different helmet manufacturers in making their designs as safe as possible. Unfortunately, those steps were reactionary. There are retired players dealing with pain killer addictions, depression, and many other ailments due to their time spent in the NFL. The list is too long to mention in this article, but you can go to and read about some of the retired NFL players suffering from ailments caused by pro football.

The NFL may have been too late to prevent the ailments of past players, but they can still influence the future health of its current players by developing breakthroughs in NFL player safety.


What should the NFL be doing?

Anything and everything they can think of - even things that they aren't thinking of. Research on concussions is a great thing. Developing a better helmet is a great thing. Enforcing helmet to helmet penalties is a step in the right direction. Making pads mandatory for all players is a great thing, as well. But there are many ways to injure the human body, especially when you are impacting two bodies together at full speed.

The NFL is the best sport in the nation. It is growing in popularity all over the world. The last thing it needs is for any of its present or former players to die or become crippled because of football. Granted, the nature of the sport is to line up on opposite sides of the ball and smash the brains out of the person in front of you, but that doesn't mean the fans need to see anyone's frontal cortex on the grass, either.

NASCAR found out the hard way that their cars were not as safe as they thought. The man known as "The Intimidator", who is 7th on NASCAR's all time win list, died in a race car. Since that day, there have been 0 deaths in the top 3 divisions of NASCAR (Craftsman Truck Series, Nationwide Series, or Sprint Cup Series). The NASCAR drivers, teams, owners, and fans learned the hard way what safety really means.

Hopefully, the NFL doesn't have to.