The Medical Reasons Of Race Car Drivers’ Deaths

Each time race car drivers take the driver’s seat, they stake their lives to have the opportunity to get their hands on that coveted place on the podium. Over 520 people have died in car racing in the past twenty-five years, according to a study conducted by the Charlotte Observer. More than half of these deaths happened on short tracks where majority of US races take place. On the other hand, twenty-percent of deaths among race car drivers in the past twenty-five years happened in drag strips.

Some of these deaths have led to changes in the rules governing the sport. For instance, the death of Kevin Ward, Jr. in 2014 led to the adoption of a new rule by NASCAR requiring drivers to remain in their cars following an accident. Ward was killed after he was struck by Tony Stewart while Ward was on the track pointing at the car of Stewart.

Another safety measure introduced by NASCAR was the mandatory use of head-and-neck restraints as well as shock-absorbing walls. The safety measures came after the untimely death of Dale Earnhardt at the 2001 Daytona 500. Earnhardt died dueb to head injuries after his car slammed into a wall. The restraints are designed to prevent the head of racers from whipping forward after a crash and minimize head and neck injuries that can lead to their deaths. While the use of these restraints is mandatory for top-level NASCAR events, it remains a recommendation for short tracks.

Department of Neurological Surgery associate professor Dr. Steve Olvey at the University of Miami said the safety measures implemented by NASCAR have yet to be adopted by smaller race cars even as their benefits have been demonstrated in top-level NASCAR events.

A number of deaths on the race track are preventable, but safety devices are normally not used by race car drivers unless they are made mandatory, according to Simpson Performance Products CEO Chuck Davies. Simpson Performance Products produces the HANS device, or the head and neck support device, that is used to prevent head and neck injuries among race car drivers.

The deaths of numerous race car drivers resulted to increasing concerns among fans, track owners, and the drivers themselves on the safety of the sport. Questions were also raised on whether sanctioning bodies have done enough to ensure the safety of everyone involved in the sport.

NASCAR

Photo Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NASCAR

The following shows a list of the cause of the deaths of many race car drivers. It also shows a list of drivers who died due to these causes.

Blunt Force Trauma

Blunt force trauma is an injury resulting from an impact or collision with a dull, solid object or surface, according to medscape.com. Nearly all transportation fatalities are caused by blunt force trauma. There are numerous kinds of blunt force injuries, including abrasions, contusions, lacerations, avulsions, and fractures. Blunt force trauma to the head can result in complications affecting the brain and may lead to death. One serious complication resulting from this type of injury is the swelling of the brain, which causes the brain to press against the skull. In this situation, blood flow into the brain will be disrupted and will result in oxygen deprivation. However, race car driver deaths due to blunt force trauma have been significantly reduced with the use of seatbelts. Seatbelts keep drivers from flying out of their cars following a crash. Modifications on the design of seatbelts have also saved numerous lives in the racing industry. While blunt force trauma continues to be a common cause of death among race car drivers, the use of seatbelts made it more common among drivers of open-cockpit vehicles.

Notable Racing Deaths Due to Blunt Force Trauma

Joseph Herbert “Joe” Weatherly

On January 19, 1964, Joe Weatherly sustained head injuries following an accident at the Riverside International Raceway. The head of the American stock car racing driver hit a retaining wall, which caused his instantaneous death. He did not wear a shoulder harness, and the car did not have a window net due to his fear of being trapped inside the car if it burns. The death of Weatherly and the crash of Richard Petty in 1970 compelled NASCAR to require the installation of window nets in all race cars.

James “Jim” Clark, Jr.

Jim Clark died after his Lotus 48 veered off the race track of the Hockenheimring racing circuit on the fifth lap of the first heat. The car crashed into the trees, which caused Clark to suffer a skull fracture and broken neck. He died before he reached the hospital.

Daniel Clive “Dan” Wheldon

On October 16, 2011, Dan Wheldon was killed after his head hit a post on the catch fence at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Prior to hitting his head, his car flew around 325 feet after being involved in a 15-car accident. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the University Medical Center of Southern Nevada where he was airlifted due to his critical injuries. Blunt force trauma was the cause of death after his head suffered two impacts when the car flew and when his head hit the post, which caused his instantaneous death.

Penetrating Trauma

Penetrating trauma is an injury sustained when a sharp force or projectile enters the body. Lethal and non-lethal penetrating trauma are not common among drivers using sedan-type vehicles since their bodies are protected by the body of the car. Injuries and deaths caused by penetrating trauma have decreased following the mandatory use of seatbelts in the racing industry. The use of new car designs further reduced injuries and deaths caused by penetrating trauma.

Notable Death Caused By Penetrating Trauma

Ayrton Senna da Silva

Ayrton Senna da Silva was killed after his car crashed into a concrete barrier at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix on May 1, 1994. The impact of the crash caused a part of the wheel suspension to penetrate the helmet of Senna causing trauma above his right eye. The death of Senna resulted to the implementation of new safety measures by the International Automobile Federation, including a reduction in the size of the diffusers, increasing the height of the cockpit sides to enhance lateral protection and to strengthen the front wishbones of the car, among others.

Ayrton Senna

Photo Credit: https://www.yahoo.com/news/senna-ratzenberger-deaths-prompt-safer-f1-105908919.html

Notable Injury Due To Penetrating Trauma

Felipe Massa

On July 25, 2009, Felipe Massa suffered a penetrating trauma from a suspension spring from the Brawn BGP of Rubens Barrichello during the second qualifying round at the Hungarian Grand Prix. The suspension spring struck the head of Massa, who crashed into a tire barrier following the accident. He was airlifted to the AEK hospital where he underwent surgery. His condition improved following the surgery and was discharged after one week. Following the accident, the visor attachment of the helmet manufactured by Schuberth was reinforced. The requirements for the helmets used in all professional racing events were also changed by all sanctioning bodies in the world after the accident.

Basilar Skull Fracture

A basal skull fracture or basilar skull fracture is a crack along the base of the skull, which can lead to death. The fracture occurs when the skull is struck by a force strong enough to break the bone. The skull fracture can be caused by any type of impact, including hitting or falling to the ground, getting struck by a hard object, or suffering a head injury due to a car accident. Basilar skull fractures are common causes of deaths in racing accidents. However, the use of head and neck support, or HANS, devices has reduced the number of injuries and deaths due to basilar skull fracture.

Notable Deaths Due To Basilar Skull Fracture

James Joyce Fitzgerald

James Joyce Fitzgerald was the oldest driver to join the Trans Am Series of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on November 8, 1987. On the third lap of the race, the Nissan 300ZX Turbo of Fitzgerald slammed into a concrete wall on the first turn, causing a basilar skull fracture that resulted to his instantaneous death.

Roland Ratzenberger

On April 30, 1994, the front wing of the car of Roland Ratzenberger was damaged after he went off-track during the qualifying round of the San Marino Grand Prix. The wing eventually broke off after he opted to continue racing, causing it to go under the car. The car hit the outside wall of the Imola racing circuit. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the Maggiore Hospital due to a basilar skull fracture.

Adam Kyler Petty

The throttle stick of the car of Adam Petty was stuck wide open on the third turn during a practice session for the 2000 NASCAR Busch Series race on May 12, 2000. The car struck the outside wall causing the instantaneous death of Petty due to a basilar skull fracture. The death of Petty and Kenneth Dale “Kenny” Irwin Jr. on July 7, 2000 compelled NASCAR to require the use of kill switches on the steering wheel as well as the use of the Whelen Modified Tour restrictor plate, which dealt with the cause of these accidents.

Anthony Dean “Tony” Roper

On October 13, 2000, Tony Roper was involved in an accident during the Craftsman Truck Series O’Reilly 400 at the Texas Motor Speedway. The Ford of Roper made contact with the front bumper of Steve Grissom as Roper attempted to pass Grissom. Subsequently, the truck was forced to make a hard right-turn and hit a concrete wall. He was unresponsive when he was extricated from the truck. He eventually died due to a severe neck injury the next day at the Parkland Memorial Hospital.

Ralph Dale Earnhardt

On February 18, 2001, the car of Dale Earnhardt collided with the car of Ken Schrader after hitting the car of Sterling Marlin at the Daytona International Speedway. The collision caused Earnhardt to hit an outside wall head-on. Earnhardt was pronounced dead two hours later at the Halifax Medical Center. Aside from a blunt force trauma to the head, the 49-year old Earnhardt suffered a fatal basilar skull fracture. The death of Earnhardt resulted to the implementation of numerous safety measures by NASCAR, including the use of the HANS devices.

Whiplash Or Sudden Deceleration Injuries

Whiplash or sudden deceleration injuries are caused when a body is forcibly stopped while the internal organs are still in motion due to inertia. While these injuries may be mild at times, it can also lead to disability or death. While the NeuroMuscular Therapy Center uses the term whiplash due to the lashing motion of the head, sudden deceleration is the more accurate description of what happens inside the body. Sudden deceleration causes two points of injury to the brain. The first point is where the brain hits the skull while the second point is on the opposite side where the sharp movement causes the brain to bruise and bleed.

Notable Deaths Due To Sudden Deceleration Injuries

Mark Neary Donohue, Jr.

Mark Donohue was practicing at the Österreichring race track for the Austrian Grand Prix in August 1975 when he lost control of his March 751 after a tire blew. It caused him to go into the catch fencing of the track. While he was not significantly injured, he supposedly hit either the post of the catch fencing or the wood frame of an advertising billboard close to the track. But, he later experienced a severe headache that worsened and had to be brought to a hospital. He went into a coma due to a brain hemorrhage and later died. Deaths due to these causes are unlikely to happen today due to advances in medical technology and better training among medical staff on the track.

Allan Simonsen

Allan Simonsen died on June 22, 2013 while competing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race after his car went out of control and hit the guard railing. Simonsen was conscious when rescue workers attended to him before he became unconscious after a few moments. Since there was no evidence of blunt force trauma or penetrating injuries on the body of Simonsen, sudden deceleration injury was considered as the cause of his death.

Jules Lucien André Bianchi

Jules Bianchi died nine months after he lost control of his car during the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix on October 5, 2014. He collided with a crane used to remove the Sauber of Adrian Sutil, which spun out of control in a previous lap. He suffered a severe head injury due to the crash and lapsed into a coma for nine months before dying at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire due to a diffuse axonal injury. The death of Bianchi resulted to the implementation of additional safety measures on the track by the FIA, including the possible use of a virtual safety car, the installation of a protective skirting around recovery vehicles and requiring some Grand Prix events to start not less than four hours before sunset.

Notable Injury Due To Sudden Deceleration Injuries

Michael Schumacher

On December 29, 2013, Michael Schumacher suffered a head injury after hitting his head on a rock while vacationing at the Swiss Alps. The traumatic brain injury put him on a medically-induced coma and was declared in a stable condition by his doctors on March 7, 2014. What happened to Schumacher highlights the seriousness of these injuries, which can happen even if people wear protective gear. Schumacher was wearing a helmet when he suffered the injury. The seriousness of the injury was only discovered after he went through a CAT scan.

Fire/Asphyxiation

While one obvious cause of death among race drivers is fire, it rarely happens on the race track. Aside from fire, some drivers also die due to smoke inhalation. Even though NASCAR and IndyCar have their respective highly-trained safety teams, it takes some time before these teams arrive at the scene and deal with this tragedy. But, these accidents have been reduced with the development of modern fuels, fuel cells, equipment, and car designs. Regulations and safety measures have been continuously updated to reduce the incidence of fire on the race track. In fact, refueling during a race was banned by Formula 1 starting in 2012 following a number of fueling accidents in the past.

Notable Deaths Due To Fire

Jerry Unser

Jerry Unser died during a practice session in Indianapolis in 1959 after he lost control of his car causing it to hit a wall before flipping over on the track and exploding. Unser died later due to burns caused by the resulting fire. The death of Unser resulted to the mandatory use of fire-resistant driving suits.

Joseph “Jo” Siffert

On October 24 1971, Jo Siffert died during the World Championship Victory Race non-championship race at Brands Hatch. His BRM caught fire after the suspension snapped, causing it to crash. He was not able to escape and died due to smoke inhalation. An investigation showed that extinguishers on the track did not function. The accident resulted to mandatory piped air into the helmet of the driver along with extinguisher inside the car.

Roger Williamson

Roger Williamson died after a tire failure caused his March Formula 1 to flip over before catching fire at the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix. David Purley stopped his car and attempted to save Williamson by trying to flip it over before trying to put the fire using a fire extinguisher. The heat prevented the race marshals from helping Williamson. A fire engine arrived eight minutes after the accident, which was too late to save Williamson.

Medical Deaths

The stress race car drivers suffer during a race is at an elevated level. Due to this, all race sanctioning bodies require drivers to go through an EKG every two years. On the other hand, drivers over fifty years old are required to go through the EKG every year. While the procedure may be tedious and annoying to race car drivers, there is a good reason behind this requirement since a number of drivers die every year even without being involved in an accident. Racing can be a very stressful situation among race car drivers.

Notable Deaths due to Medical Reasons

Gérard Ah Mouck

Gérard Ah Mouck died on August 19, 2007 after suffering a heart attack during the Mauritius Rally Championship at the Mauritius Rallye à l’Ile Maurice.

Wolf Silvester

On June 22, 2013, Wolf Silvester suffered a heart attack at the VLN race, which was held in Nurburgring. Safety marshals said the Opel Astra OPC of Silvester went out of control during the race. They found Sivlester motionless while sitting inside the car.

Conclusion

The death of numerous race car drivers led to the implementation of numerous safety measures to keep the drivers safe. Even with the numerous safety measures established by various sanctioning bodies, a good number of drivers are still anxious about their safety.

To alleviate these concerns, sanctioning bodies are continuously working on ensuring the safety of drivers on the race track. Safety measures established by these organizations have made race car drivers safer than before. These measures have made the helmets, race suits, cars and tracks safer for use. Even with the implementation of these safety measures, there is still a lot of work to do. Aside from these sanctioning bodies, the drivers also have to do their part in ensuring their own safety.

However, it should be noted that these safety measures are typically established after a major accident, which may result to serious injuries or even death. One way to deal with this situation is to establish an international standard of safety in all race tracks and events. It is also necessary to take a pro-active stance when dealing with these accidents. Since accidents may happen when least expected, it is important for drivers and sanctioning bodies to look into potential areas where accidents may happen. They should not wait for a series of incidents to happen before they do anything about it.

While the equipment can be enhanced to prevent these accidents, it should be noted that luck may also come into play when it comes to surviving horrific accidents. Since it is not possible to make the human body invincible, it is necessary for both the driver and the sanctioning body to work together to use their knowledge aboutthe past incidents to prevent these accidents from ever happening again.

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