This is a piece born out of extreme frustration and anger. In March of this year, a 15-year-old girl died in a head-on collision with a wall at a Florida dirt track driving a simple, well prepared, four-cylinder Mini Stock (called a Gladiator at this particular track) and “not going very fast.” She had on all of the proper equipment that is common for racing including proper seat belts, a good firesuit, a racing helmet, racing shoes, and more, but what she did not have on was a head-and-neck restraint system.
From all indications from testimony given to us by observers who were there, she most likely died from a head-and-neck injury. The younger drivers may be more at risk due to their underdeveloped bodies not being able to resist the forces involved. They are not fully developed at 15 and younger like we adults are. So, it would seem that they are more at risk, period. But aren’t we all at risk from this injury?
Most will say that it was a racing incident, that accidents happen, that she was doing what she loved, and on and on. That’s all well and good, proper words fail us at times like this. But sometimes we need to find fault. Sometimes we need to point fingers. Not to punish anyone and certainly not for monetary gain. We need to blame because we don’t want this kind of thing to ever happen again. Someone needs to be accountable so we can fix the problem.
So, here is who I blame. First off, maybe we have not done a good enough job, all us motorsports writers, to convince families that their husbands, wives, sons, and daughters can and will be killed under certain conditions if they are not properly equipped. And the only thing missing from the list and not mandated by rules in too many cases are the H&N devices. But, we don’t make the rules do we.
We as a sport have minimized the dangers of fire by the development of quality fire resistant suits, gloves, shoes, and helmets as well as advanced fuel cells and fire suppression systems to put out the fire. Thanks go to Bill Simpson for getting all of that going way back in the 1960s. And our rollcages and racing seats are much better than have ever been. Seatbelts have never been a real problem, but we have learned how to install them correctly. What is left, you guessed it. I the span of one year, two teens have died on Florida tracks in small stock type of cars from hitting walls at relatively slow speeds.
Who could possibly make all of this go away? The ones who make the rules can make it all better. No, they can’t save everyone, no one can. There are instances when freak accidents do happen and racers die. Basilar skull fracture is not one of those. We already know how to mitigate the extreme forces to the base of the skull and neck from a frontal impact.
I challenge all track officials, owners, sanctions, and any other rules makers to once and for all acknowledge the extreme danger that not wearing a H&N device presents and mandate that all drivers wear one at all times while on their racetrack. And if you don’t, and someone dies, I blame you. There, I said it. And I mean it. No amount of money can replace that 15-year-old girl, or anyone we love and care about, but a relatively small amount of money can purchase the simple, but effective, equipment that can save their lives.
You already mandate expensive firesuits, seatbelts, helmets, gloves, (hopefully) ’cages and specified strength enclosures, and fire bottles. This is just one step further and really all we need to do to greatly reduce the risk. How does a loss like this affect this particular racetrack and all racetracks? How many parents decide the risk is not worth it and shut down their children’s racing programs? Too many I fear.
What I fear the most is hearing another story about a racer dying from a basilar skull injury when we have the means to stop this from happening. Are we as an industry going to step up and fix this problem? And make no mistake, it is a huge problem. All eyes are on you, the individuals who make the rules. It’s go time.
If you have comments or questions about this or anything racing related, send them to my email address: email@example.com, or mail can be sent to Circle Track, Senior Tech Editor, 9036 Brittany Way, Tampa, FL 33619.
Brake Pressure Kill Switch Comments
Met you a couple years ago at State Park Speedway in Wausau, Wisconsin. Colin was racing the No. 44 SLM. Since then my brother and I partnered up along with my dad to have a family run race team.
My son, Colin Reffner, has been racing Super Late Models going on four years as a third-generation driver. His grandfather is Tom Reffner who was featured in SCRmagazine in Feb. 1978. His Uncle Bryan was a ASA Champion and former NASCAR Truck Series standout.
I have been around racing all my life and had been going to racetracks with my dad since 1974 and have seen a lot of good drivers get hurt and have issues walking today from stuck throttles. We have run the Coleman Brake Activated Kill Switch for three years and it works and like you said for little over $100, you can’t beat it.
The Coleman switch it is part of Colin’s warm-up procedure making sure it works every time before we go out to practice. I have heard people say they would not install them because you can’t get all the air out of the brake system. We have never had any brake issues or have had any electrical issues.
We built a brand-new in-house chassis, everything was built from the center section to the spindles this last winter and this was one of the first items I purchased. You can’t beat a good race seat, a good fuel cell, HANS device, and a brake-activated kill switch.
We need to get all the racing series to come together and run two-barrel carbs for one cost. A lot of series are going back to the four-barrel and the cost is nuts and this is where a lot of the problems come from with stuck throttles with the clearance on the bottom side of the airbox.
The bracket that swings the butterflies open tends to rub on the bottom side of the airbox and I have seen where guys do not put a stop on for the top and when you get on the racetrack the air pushes the hood down on the airbox. Running a two-barrel you have less chance of moving parts sticking or failing.
Thanks for sharing your comments. We are narrowing down the real dangers associated with short track racing and there are really only a couple of un-corrected issues. One is, as you mentioned and we talked about recently, the stuck throttle which can be mitigated by the use of the kill switch. The other is the basilar skull injury which can be mostly eliminated by use of a H&N device.
The other issues that cause a stuck throttle should be known and dealt with by the teams. But strange things do happen with the carbs that can’t be explained. With the Frank Kreyer incident at New Smyrna Speedway last year, the secondary throttle shaft stuck to the point we could not move it with large pliers. It wasn’t the linkage or anything about how the carb was built. Something very small got stuck in the space between the shaft and the hole through the carb base.
So, knowing that anything can happen outside all of our vigilance to construct the car correctly, having a kill switch can lessen the damage, if not prevent contact entirely, from impact with the wall. It’s much better to hit at less than 30 mph than at 70-plus mph, right? The difference is probably in the tens of thousands of dollars.