You've spent the long winter months going over your race car with a fine-tooth comb. Your rollcage is stronger than a dog's breath, your seat is bolted to the chassis so firmly it might as well be set in concrete, and you finally sprung for that full-face helmet. You have all your bases covered-but what about the factors out of your control? Your car may be as safe as possible, but how safe are the cars of the competitors you race with, and how safe is the track you race on?
These are questions many racers never bother to ask. You may think you have no control over the safety procedures and infrastructure at your local track, but in a way, you do: Find somewhere else to race. It may seem drastic, but it beats an unnecessary injury, or worse.
To help you gauge how safe your track is, Circle Track has put together some tips for things you should look for the next time you go racing. But first a warning: As with everything else in life, there are no absolutes. Racing is dangerous, and no matter how safety conscious a track is, injuries will occur. These are only guidelines; your own best judgment should be your ultimate guide.
Retaining WallsAre there barriers to keep you on the track? Concrete walls are generally considered safer than Armco (formed metal barriers that you normally see on roadsides) because concrete will not bounce your car back down the track and into traffic. The wall should also be taller than your car's center of gravity to keep the car from flipping over it-a good rule of thumb is to make sure it reaches the window sill on the door. Also check to make sure it is smooth with nothing for your car to catch on and perpendicular to the angle of the track. If the track is perfectly flat, straight walls are fine; if the track is banked, the walls should be built 90 degrees to the angle of the banking to keep your car from climbing up the wall.
Some tracks are open on three sides with the only wall separating the cars from the fans on the frontstretch. These are fine-just make sure there is nothing to hit if you do fly off the track.
Also look for any abutments or places where your car can hit the end of a wall. These are usually track entrances and the entrance to pit road; usually they are angled away from traffic so that it requires a freak series of events to make your car hit it head-on. Regardless, any wall abutments should be buffered by water barriers, styrofoam blocks, or some other safety device. Gates should also overlap the walls and not protrude onto the track or offer anything for your car to catch on, should you scrub it.
Track SurfaceMany tracks are slick, but that doesn't necessarily make it dangerous unless the drivers aren't prepared to handle it. What you should look at is the track's surface. If it's asphalt, are there potholes that could cause you to lose control? With dirt, look for holes or ruts that can throw you off your line or another racer into you. Some ruts are inevitable when racing on dirt, but a well-maintained track will minimize them. Slick is your responsibility to handle; smooth is the track's responsibility.
LightsMost tracks are well designed when it comes to protecting cars from light poles, but the quality of light is another story. If your track races at night, are there dark or bright spots on the track that make it difficult to judge what other racers are doing? Glare can also be a problem when lights are poorly placed or aimed.
A properly designed lighting system will offer consistent lighting all the way around the track and will eliminate glare. Lights should hit the track from above and slightly behind the car (there should always be a small shadow in front of you). Also, the lights should overlap to eliminate dark spots and reduce the strobing effect that comes from driving past light stands at speed.
Safety CrewsAccidents happen, especially in racing where everybody is competing at their absolute limits. If you race long enough, there will come a time when you will have to depend on the track's safety crews. Make sure the track has plenty of safety personnel-if it looks like there are too many, then that should just about do it. Safety crews should be stationed in both turns; if something goes wrong, you don't want them to have to run from one side of the track to the other to get to you. There should always be an ambulance somewhere on the infield, and it should be able to reach you at any spot on the track without having to spend too much time weaving through infield traffic.
This may seem odd, but also check how well the track controls traffic and parking. If the ambulance has to take you to the hospital, it must be able to exit the track quickly without having to wait for fans to move their cars because they blocked the exit road.
The RulesYou may be in control of your race car, but what about everyone else? You can't control the behavior of every driver out there, but the track can. Track rules should be posted in a public location to make it easier to resolve disputes about behavior. Track officials should clearly state all rules for driver conduct at every driver's meeting and be vigilant about enforcing their own rules. Your speedway may have a no-bumping rule, but it does no good unless its competitors are given a good reason to follow it.
Are You Covered?Larry Thomas, the public relations and event director at Concord Motorsports Park in Concord, North Carolina, laughs when asked how often drivers inquire about the track's insurance.
"No one has ever asked me about insurance. There is not a driver-at least locally-who doesn't think he's Superman and will never get hurt," he says. Thomas says he would welcome any driver to ask him about the track's insurance and thinks the management at most tracks would as well. He also cautions against drivers depending on health insurance from their full-time employer, especially if that job isn't involved with racing. Many insurance policies will not cover injuries incurred while racing. Make sure you know what is in your policy.