It takes courage not to race

ThatsRacin.com Opinion

TOM HIGGINS’ SCUFFSApril 4, 2013 

Congratulations are due driver Denny Hamlin and the leadership of his Joe Gibbs Racing team for their considerable courage and common sense.

Yes, courage in choosing NOT to race while Hamlin is recovering from a painful back injury that temporarily borders on crippling.

And common sense in deciding against doing so over the next five NASCAR Cup Series events, starting with Sunday’s STP Gas Booster 500 at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia.

Hamlin suffered a compression fracture of the L1 vertebra when he smashed into a wall on the last lap of the Auto Club 500 two weeks ago in California. The wall did not have the safe-barrier cushioning found at most tracks on NASCAR’s major tour.

In the past star drivers such as Cup champions Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip have competed when injuries probably should have confined them to bed.

Ditto others, including top competitors such as Harry Gant, Ricky Rudd and Sterling Marlin.

All in pursuit of points toward post-season bonus dollars. And, oh yeah, the thrill of the chase.

I thought at the time—back in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s-- that the drivers were taking terrible chances. The passage of years has reinforced that opinion.

Allison’s body was badly battered in the ‘70s when his car tumbled practically the length of the backstretch at N.C. Motor Speedway. Bobby could barely move. But he kept on racing.

The late Neil Bonnett told me that Allison secretly had straps sewn onto his uniform that served as “handles” so he could be lifted into and out of the cockpit.

Among other various injuries over the years, Earnhardt and Waltrip sustained fractured legs that similarly limited their mobility. They, too, had to be assisted into their cars.

Earnhardt’s physician in Mooresville, Dr. Bill Skeen, later told me that the type of broken knee

that Dale experienced at Pocono Raceway “had to be excruciating in the extreme.” Added Dr. Skeen, “He’s got to want to scream every time he puts the least bit of pressure on his big toe."

Earnhardt, on crutches, hid out from NASCAR officials throughout practice and qualifying the next week so he didn’t miss a race at Talladega Superspeedway.

Like Allison, Waltrip, limping and addled by a T-bone crash at Daytona, had to be lifted into his car the next week at Richmond. Some time afterward Waltrip conceded that he remembered nothing of that weekend.

Petty raced at Talladega with a broken bone in his neck. Same as Earnhardt, “The King” evaded NASCAR officials to avoid being forcibly parked.

Rudd rode through an exceedingly violent, tumbling, twisting crash at Daytona, his car slamming nose-first into the ground. Ricky suffered such severe facial injuries that his blackened eyes swelled shut.

Rudd’s teammates, led by car owner Bud Moore, taped his eyes OPEN so that Rudd could drive and not miss a race. In one of the unlikeliest developments in NASCAR history, Rudd triumphed a week later at Richmond.

Gant very nearly equaled this he-man feat. Involved in a savage wreck at Pocono, Gant sustained a badly-bruised heart. The injury hospitalized him for two nights.

But the very next Sunday there Harry was at Michigan International Speedway, finishing a close second to winner Bill Elliott.

A crash at Bristol Motor Speedway turned Marlin’s car into fireball. Sterling sustained burns to his face, shoulders and inner thighs. The Tennessean was hurt so badly that he was hospitalized for treatment at the Vanderbilt University Burn Center in Nashville.

The day before the next race Marlin was flown on a private plane to North Wilkesboro so he could run a mandatory lap in practice. A doctor accompanied him.

Just prior to the 400-lap event Marlin was led gingerly to his car. His face was wrapped so heavily that he looked like a mummy. Sterling ran the one lap under green required to earn points, then turned his car over to a relief driver, Chargin’ Charlie Glotzbach.

Marlin then was flown immediately back to Nashville and the burn center.

“This is insanity,” I thought at the time, and wrote a column expressing just that.

It was insane for all the drivers I’ve mentioned, no matter that Rudd triumphed and Gant almost did.

Suppose they had been swept into hard crashes again. Suppose that the greatest fear of every driver, fire, had been ignited.

Could they have gotten out of their cars in time?

I seriously doubt it, especially in the cases of the drivers with the badly-broken bones.

Which leads to the question, should NASCAR impose rules that protect severely injured drivers from themselves?

Unfortunately, some drivers, maybe even most, never will show the gumption that a concussed Dale Earnhardt, Jr., did last year in sidelining himself. Nor that Denny Hamlin currently is exhibiting.

The National Football League now sits down players with concussions until they are healed.

It should be the same for injured Cup Series drivers, especially those who can’t get into or out of cars on their own.

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