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THE AFTERNOON of qualifying for the Samsung 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 4 began like any other for Michael McDowell. A rookie driver in the Sprint Cup Series, he walked down pit road, and before hopping into his number 00 Toyota, he kissed his wife, Jami. "Good luck," Jami whispered—as she always does. But as the 23-year-old McDowell slid into his car, a loud bang came from the track: The number 38 Ford of David Gilliland had blown its engine on the entry to Turn 1, spraying oil on the asphalt racing surface. The NASCAR safety crew laid down a granular substance known as speedy dry over the oil to absorb as much as possible. After several minutes of cleanup, qualifying resumed.
McDowell—the first driver up after Gilliland—fired his ignition, then rumbled onto the track for his two-lap qualifying run. This was his first time racing at the 1.5-mile oval, and he had struggled in practice, failing to crack the top 20 on the speed chart. But now he was going to push his car to its limit. A part-time Cup driver, McDowell was hoping to land a full-time ride in 2009. This was a chance to impress his team owner, Michael Waltrip.
On his first lap McDowell felt that his car was too tight through Turn 1, meaning that the nose slid up the track as he came through the corner, forcing him to ease off the gas and costing valuable milliseconds. He had driven just below the patch of speedy dry, heading into the turn, but on his next lap he decided to take a wider angle into the corner. This time he would go right over the speedy dry, pushing his car even harder.
Jami was walking back to the garage, where she planned to meet her husband in a few minutes, when she heard what sounded like a bomb exploding in Turn 1. She looked up at a large video screen in the infield. She'd missed Michael's slamming into the wall at 170 mph, but now, to her horror, she saw his crumpled car barrel-rolling in flames down the backstretch. Eight, nine, 10 times the car flipped, all the while shedding sheet metal and broken parts.
"Oh, no!" Jami yelled. She ran to the infield medical center, her heart jackhammering, praying that her husband wasn't going to be the first fatality in NASCAR since Dale Earnhardt was killed at the 2001 Daytona 500. She was so consumed with fear that she couldn't even cry.
RACE DRIVERS pride themselves on their ability to defy death. Part of the allure of going 200 mph with 42 other cars on the track, after all, is the thrill of taking chances where others won't. Ask any driver in the NASCAR garage today if he has ever been scared behind the wheel, if he's ever felt that shadow creeping in, and you'll get laughed at. "Scared? Are you s------- me?" says Dale Earnhardt Jr. "Man, what we do is take chances for a living. It's what we live for. I've been in a hell of a lot of crashes, and never once have I been scared. Plus, the sport is safer now than it's ever been.... I'd like to think my daddy had something to do with that. I'd like to think my daddy has saved lives."
Little E is right, because the story of how driver safety has increased dramatically in NASCAR over the last seven years—and how drivers are now walking away from wrecks that once would almost certainly have been fatal—begins with his father's death at Daytona. ( Earnhardt suffered a fatal skull fracture when the right front of his Chevy hit the concrete wall.) A day after losing the sport's biggest star, NASCAR transported Earnhardt's mangled black number 3 Chevy to a storage facility in Hickory, N.C. Over several months, more than 100 people—engineers, college professors, highway safety experts, crew chiefs, drivers—examined every inch of the wrecked car, searching for clues to prevent another fatality.
In the summer of '01, just months after Earnhardt's wreck, NASCAR's top brass held a meeting at a hotel in Washington, D.C., with three of the leading crash experts in the U.S.: Dean Sicking, an engineering professor at Nebraska; Jim Raddin, an MIT-educated biomechanical engineer; and John Melvin, a former safety engineer for General Motors. This brain trust advised NASCAR to devote 65% of its efforts to constructing a better restraint system for the driver, 25% to developing a softer, more energy-absorbent wall, and the last 10% to building a car better able to withstand a crash.
"If not for those experts, we might have concentrated on the front bumper because that was the popular opinion in the industry for what we needed to work on," says Gary Nelson, former vice president of research and development for NASCAR. "But they went against that. After they made their recommendation, we went to work."
And there was plenty to be done. Earnhardt had been the fourth driver to die of a head or neck injury in NASCAR's top three series over the previous 10 months (the others were Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper), evidence that NASCAR's safety record lagged behind those of other racing series. NASCAR didn't even allow crash-data recorders in its cars—which other series did—because it feared that crew chiefs would somehow manipulate the electronic devices to cheat.