Auto Racing Safety – A Voluntaryist Enterprise

By John Nelson (June 21, 2020)

As a reader of THE VOLUNTARYIST and as a long-time fan of oval track auto racing, it occurred to me that an article on the history of this predominantly private sector sport would be appropriate. I would like to begin by briefly reviewing the early history of motor sports. For those of you unfamiliar with the sport, I will explain the main types of auto racing. Then I would like to answer the question: “Who Governs Auto Racing?,” which includes looking at the roles of Sanctioning Bodies, Racetrack Owners and Promoters, Manufacturers and Private Foundations. Then I will examine Safety Trends in a hobby that – when it began – didn’t even know what safety meant. Who pushes for racing safety? Auto racing has been a hobby, and now an industry, that evolved with little or no government involvement. So let’s move “off to the races,” to see what history has to tell us about how the free market works.

American Racing History, A Brief Look

As Allan Brown [1] records, auto racing is nearly as old as the automobile. The world’s first organized speed contest took place on July 22, 1894 and ran from Paris to Rouen, France. The first such event in the United States ran from Chicago to Evanston, Illinois and back through deep snow on November 28, 1895. These and other early point-to-point races took place on public roads, most of which were unpaved. Still remembered today is the grueling New York to Paris race of 1908. The cars began in New York, crossed the continent to Seattle, and boarded boats for transport to Valdez, Alaska. From there they proceeded under their own power across the frozen Bering Strait and Siberia, blazing their own trails en route to Paris. The winning American-made Thomas Flyer covered the distance of 13,341 miles in 161 days.

The first American auto races on an oval track took place in September 1896 at Narragansett Park in Providence, Rhode Island on a 1-mile track built for horse racing. Seven cars were entered, five gasoline and two electric. Bad weather, a rough track, and frequent breakdowns marred the performance, but the Narragansett races foretold the American taste for oval-track racing as opposed to the road racing that prevails in most of the rest of the world. Oval tracks enable promoters to collect admission from spectators who enjoy a view of the entire race from a grandstand.

Early oval races that followed Narragansett Park likewise took place on horse racing tracks, either privately owned facilities or state and county fairgrounds. And as mentioned in Issue 191 of THE VOLUNTARYIST, the first exclusive-use highway in the United States was designed not only for racing, but for genuine pleasure driving when not being used as a track. It was built with private funds by William K. Vanderbilt II in and opened in October 1908 on Long Island, New York. Yet enthusiasm for the sport rapidly prompted construction of purpose-built speedways, the first of which was Lakeside Auto Speedway in San Diego, California. The brick-surfaced 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway was completed in 1909 and hosted its first 500-mile race in 1911. Many others soon followed, the most spectacular being the board tracks that flourished during the 1910s and 1920s. Ranging mostly from 1.0 to 1.25 miles around and banked as steeply as 50 degrees, these were the first American superspeedways. They fostered incredible speed and exacted a fearful toll of casualties. Fires, storms, and rapid deterioration were the undoing of the board tracks. High-banked superspeedways would not return until 1950 when Darlington (South Carolina) Raceway opened in 1950.

American Oval Tracks, Major Types of Cars

While stock car racing existed before World War II, open-cockpit (or open wheel) race cars were the norm during this period. These took three main forms. At the top was Championship racing sanctioned by the American Automobile Association (AAA). These were long-distance affairs held at Indianapolis and other large (mostly 1 mile or longer) dirt and paved tracks. Drivers qualified through time trials with the fastest starting on the pole. Many of the cars carried a riding mechanic, who worked a hand pump to pressurize the fuel tank and warned the driver of traffic approaching from behind. Two-man cars continued at Indianapolis through the late 1930s, when the use of rear-view mirrors pioneered by 1911 Indianapolis winner Ray Harroun finally became prevalent.

Slightly smaller than a Championship car was a dirt-track car, now called a Sprint Car. These raced (and race today) primarily on tracks of ½-mile or shorter in a series of short races, including heats, semi-final or consolation, and a 20- to 40-lap feature event. Every ounce of unnecessary weight is removed, including clutch, transmission, battery and starter motor, so the cars must be pushed to start and pit stops are not part of the program. In the mid 1930s a third type of open wheel car came onto the scene, the Midget. Resembling scaled-down Sprint Cars, the Midgets are at their best on tracks of ¼-mile and shorter. From about 1935 to 1950 hundreds of Midget tracks were built and for the first time, the public could enjoy auto racing on a weekly basis. The small scale of Midget racing enabled promoters to bring the activity to urban dwellers on tracks built in football and baseball stadiums and indoors for wintertime racing.

Stock car racing as we know it began in the southeastern United States shortly after the end of World War II. An abundance of cheap pre-war coupes and sedans enabled speed enthusiasts to compete on a shoestring. By the early 1950s stock car competition had spread throughout North America and nearly drove the Midgets to extinction. It spurred the greatest boom in American auto racing history with 2,457 speedways active during the 1950s, compared with 1,620 tracks in the next most prosperous decade, the 1960s [2].

Most early stock car racing involved Modifieds, old cars cut down and modified for speed. During NASCAR’s first official season of 1948, the club sanctioned Modified racing only. In the following season Bill France introduced the “Strictly Stock” division featuring new-model cars with no modifications permitted. Although not entirely novel (AAA and other clubs had previously sanctioned new-car races), NASCAR’s version ballooned in popularity and evolved into today’s Cup Series. Today’s Cup car is totally a purpose-built racing machine that in the name of safety and reliability, uses not a single component designed for street use.

Facing competition from a multitude of entertainment media, oval-track racing in America has been declining in recent years. Allan Brown lists 1,083 oval tracks active between 2010 to 2016. Below the top levels such as IndyCar and NASCAR, most speedways operate on a weekly basis during the warmer time of year. A few dozen of these feature Sprint Cars as the leading division. Midgets are relegated to special events and touring series, appearing at a given venue once or a few times annually. The remaining tracks headline some form of stock cars, generally Modifieds or “Late Models”, which (especially in the dirt-track variety) bear scant resemblance to any new car sold to the public. Below these top-line divisions are a host of “support” divisions intended to allow amateurs to race at a modest cost. Most of these are based on older Modified and Late Model cars with less expensive engines, but at the lowest level one can still find true stock cars with changes allowed only for the sake of safety.

Safety Trends

Although difficult to quantify, tremendous advances in safety have taken place in 125 years of auto racing. The raw data can be accessed on http://www.motorsportmemorial.org/index.php?db=ct, which carries accounts of every known fatality in worldwide motorsports from 1896 to the present. I have not located (or attempted to compile) statistics on fatality by year, much less on fatalities per number of participants or number of races. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, however, provides a snapshot of long term trends. Sixty people have died in race-related incidents since the first 500-mile race in 1911. Only four of these occurred in the last 40 years, the most recent being the death of driver Tony Renna in 2003. Early tolls were inflated by the practice of cars carrying riding mechanics, 12 of whom perished in crashes until two-man cars were abolished after World War II.

Let’s compare a Sprint Car from the 1930s with one of the present day. The basic form of a Sprint Car has changed little since the 1930s. Designed to race on dirt and paved oval tracks of ½ mile or less, these are the fastest machines in this type of racing. A modern Sprint Car weighs 1,325 to 1,400 pounds with the driver and is powered by an engine up to 900 horsepower. It can easily pop a wheelie coming out of the turn on a dirt track.

The 1930s driver wore goggles, gloves, and some form of protective headgear. The best helmet available in the late 1930s was the English-made Cromwell, which had a hard shell but no inside harness. Well-heeled teams usually wore custom-made suits, but most drivers wore street clothes. A few drivers used belts to hold them in the seat on rough tracks. Rollover protection was unknown. The fuel tank was a simple container inside the tapered tail behind the driver. Except at the highest levels, the car itself was largely built with frame, axles, suspension, and other components from passenger cars, often sourced from wrecking yards. The straight rail frames from Model T and Model A Fords were common.

The modern Sprint Car driver wears a tailored fire suit, usually accompanied by fire-resistant gloves, underwear, and shoes. The helmet is certified according to the rigorous, frequently updated standards of the Snell Foundation. Most tracks and sanctioning bodies require head-and-neck restraints designed to protect against the whiplash injuries that claimed many lives in past decades. Part of the safety system is the seat, a full containment design that tightly cradles the driver. Still in the tapered tail, the fuel tank is now a fuel cell built with internal bladder and baffling inside to minimize the chance of spillage and fire during a crash. All of this is inside a unified chassis and roll cage constructed of high strength steel tubing. Although serious injuries and fatalities still occur, most drivers walk away from terrifying rollovers.

Who Governs Auto Racing?

A multitude of private individuals and organizations govern automobile racing. Unlike baseball or basketball (for example), motorsports encompass a wide range of genres, each with its own fan base and group of competitors. Amateur and professional road racing, drag racing, Indy cars, stock cars, off-road competition and land speed record attempts are just a few of the racing disciplines for four-wheeled vehicles. In stock car racing alone, varieties range from the NASCAR Cup Series down to enduros where anyone can enter a $300 junkyard fugitive. Historically and at present, official governments have taken little interest in motorized competition beyond using it as a source of revenue and with high-profile events, as a source of local and national pride. Rarely have governments inserted themselves into any procedural aspects of motor racing, including safety for participants and spectators. That has been left to private managers of the sport.

Sanctioning Bodies

The organizations that oversee specific forms of auto racing are called sanctioning bodies. Familiar examples include NASCAR, IndyCar Series, Formula One, and the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA). Scores more such organizations are known only to devoted followers of specific forms of racing. The January 2020 issue of Sprint Car & Midget Magazine listed 2019 driver standings in 104 series conducted by 52 sanctioning bodies within this subset of oval-track racing. The makeup of these sanctioning bodies varies. Some are controlled in monarchial fashion by single individuals and families, like the France family in NASCAR. Others were established and managed jointly by the managers of several racetracks. A few were formed, like labor unions, by drivers and car owners who were dissatisfied with the deals they were getting from established clubs and promoters. However constituted, race sanctioning bodies govern all aspects of competition within their domain, including car specifications, qualifications of drivers and mechanics, schedules, payouts, and safety equipment and procedures. Although some sanctioning bodies own racetracks, most negotiate with speedway owners concerning sanctioned events held at their facilities. Such arrangements typically entail the track owner paying a fee to the sanctioning body, in exchange for the promise of a higher level of competition that will attract more paying customers.

Racetrack Owners and Promoters

Management of auto racing facilities generally follows one of two models. The first involves tracks that are financed, built, and managed by private owners specifically for automobile competition. The owners may be individuals, families, partnerships, or corporations. The other model involves a promoter who leases an existing track and uses it for racing. Private speedway owners often hire experienced promoters who have a reputation for presenting well managed and profitable events. Governmental bodies also lease facilities to promoters who conduct races. Hundreds of county and state fairgrounds in the United States present oval-track racing (mostly on dirt tracks) on an occasional or weekly basis. This is a major source of revenue for fairgrounds that otherwise would lie idle most of the year and commonly lose money on their annual fairs. Municipalities occasionally close off public streets and roads to host racing events. Well known in this category are the Grand Prix of Monaco and street races at St. Petersburg and Long Beach in the USA. Financial arrangements may entail a flat fee, a percentage of the gate, or a combination of sources. Of course, governments rake off taxes from those who attend and participate in races, regardless of who owns the course.

Responsibility for safety at a speedway varies with the owner/lessee arrangement. If the races are sanctioned, the sanctioning body takes charge. Many track owners and promoters operate without sanction and devise their own rules. When a track is leased from a private or governmental owner, the promoter generally is responsible for maintaining liability insurance to indemnify the owner. Self-owned race courses must provide their own insurance. Because of the unusual risks in this sport, insuring motorsports has long been the province of specialty insurers. One of the best known is K & K Insurance, which sponsored the NASCAR Cup Series team of driver Bobby Isaac and crew chief Harry Hyde during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Founded in 1952 by Nord and Teddi Krauskopf, K & K today insures a wide range of recreational activities in addition to motorsports [3].

An interesting aspect of auto racing involves minimum ages of drivers. Fifty years ago, most speedways and sanctioning organizations expected their drivers to be old enough to hold a state driver’s license. Such rules were not always closely enforced; I’ve heard or read of numerous under-age drivers who lied about their age. Nowadays, children get involved in motorsports at very young ages. It is commonplace to find five-year-olds racing go-karts and advancing to larger and faster cars as soon as track and sanctioning officials allow. Some graduate to top-level professional classes at age 12 to 14. All of this is subject to case-by-case evaluation of the young driver’s ability. Because racing takes place on private facilities and under private supervision, state minimum age rules do not apply. One exception is in New Jersey, where the state police directly govern racing safety. Here a minimum age of 18 applies to professional classes, although younger drivers race less powerful cars.

Manufacturers and Foundations

Early race cars generally came from one of two sources. Some were based on automobiles built for driving on the street. These mostly were not “stock cars” as we know them today, but production cars converted into open cockpit racers. As mentioned above, most Sprint Cars of the 1930s and earlier were built largely from stock components. Even some Indianapolis cars were close to stock. Faced by short fields during the Depression, Speedway managers opened entries to stock-based cars, which were allowed much larger engines than the purpose-built racers. Studebaker-based cars compiled an excellent record at Indy, with several top-10 finishes during the 1930s. Outside of stock-based machines, racing machines were home built to widely varying standards of workmanship. Factory built parts for racing were largely limited to speed equipment for the engine. Safety of the final product was left to discretion of the builder, with oversight from the speedway owner, promoter, and sanctioning body (if any).

Beginning in the 1940s, craftsmen began fabricating race car chassis as a business. Best known in the field was Frank Kurtis, who built more than 550 chassis for Midget cars (scaled-down Sprint Cars), another 550 Midget kits, and dozens of Indianapolis cars. In 1953 there were 24 Kurtis entries in the Indy starting grid of 33 cars{4]. Through time, fabricated chassis came to dominate practically every form of racing except at the lowest levels where “strictly stock” components are required.

Aside from being inherently safer, factory-built race cars carry strong institutional pressures for safety. The builder’s reputation rides on a safe product. Any defects in design or workmanship would open the builder to lawsuits.
Some organizations not involved in manufacturing have devoted themselves to auto racing safety. In 1956 amateur sports car racer William “Pete” Snell died during an SCCA event when his helmet failed in a crash. Established in his memory the following year, the Snell Foundation grew into the Underwriters Laboratory of helmets for all forms of motorsports. The non-profit foundation is dedicated to research, testing, certification, and public outreach. No industry representatives serve on its board of directors. Certification standards are upgraded at least every 5 years and helmets meeting these standards receive appropriate stickers[5]. Most race sanctioning bodies require helmets meeting current Snell standards and also mandate replacing helmets older than specific dates and helmets that have been damaged.

Government Involvement

Aside from using auto racing as a source of revenue, as noted above, governments seldom take a direct interest in safety or any other aspects of the sport. This relative laissez-faire attitude extends even to totalitarian regimes. As he did with the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Adolf Hitler promoted the Grand Prix efforts of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union (now Audi) as a source of national pride. The generally favorable attitude of the State toward racing and other recreation dates to “bread and circuses” of the Roman Empire. As a sideline, Roman chariots turned left on oval tracks, setting a tradition that continues today.

Calls to ban auto racing have periodically surfaced. The greatest crisis took place in 1955 when a race car at Le Mans, France went airborne and sailed into the crowd, killing 82 spectators[6]. The Swiss government issued a total ban on racing; it largely remains in force today. However, legislative efforts to outlaw or curtail racing in the United States were quickly squelched. The Le Mans tragedy did impel the AAA, America’s leading race sanctioning club, to exit the sport at the conclusion of the 1955 season.

New Jersey is the only U.S. state where the government directly supervises motor racing. The state police oversee all aspects of safety, including car equipment, driver safety, and spectator protection. However, the rules they enforce align closely with those in effect in other states where private parties are in charge of safety matters. In New Jersey and elsewhere, state and local authorities often involve themselves when fatal accidents take place at racetracks.

Who Pushes for Racing Safety?

Pressure toward safer auto racing comes from nearly everyone involved in the sport. Despite their reputations as daredevils, drivers have an obvious interest in self-preservation. Like baseball and football teams and leagues, race sanctioning bodies, speedway owners, and promoters want their stars to remain fit. Although outsiders sometimes deride racing fans as bloodthirsty, no true enthusiast wants to see drivers killed and maimed. And naturally spectators expect to be protected from cars and parts of cars flying into seating areas. Even in the less litigious times of the early 20th century, lawsuits from spectators deaths and injuries could bankrupt track owners and promoters.

A widespread practice during the 1910s and 1920s, occasionally later, was “hippodroming”: deciding in advance the outcome of a race. Although heavily derided, hippodroming was motivated by two interests, putting on a good show and reducing risk for the drivers. Outside of the highest levels, most races of this era were really exhibitions rather than true competitive events – much like professional wrestling today. Fields of cars typically were short and included one or two professional drivers who could easily lap the rest of the field multiple times. Thus, promoters arranged for the stars to hold back and provide some close racing for the paying spectators. Also, track conditions at fairground horse tracks were often wretched, with axle-breaking ruts and blinding clouds of dust. If the promoter did not take the lead, the drivers might agree among themselves to take it easy and split the purse evenly.

Drivers and car builders often installed safety features on their own initiative. One of the most famous American racers from the 1900-1920 period was Barney Oldfield. When friend and fellow racing star Bob Burman died in a rollover crash in 1916, Oldfield and engine builder Harry Miller built a radical new race car. “What Oldfield and Miller did was quite out of the ordinary as they built a race car with a roll cage inside of a streamlined compartment that completely enclosed the driver and that resulting car was the then cutting-edge ‘Golden Submarine.’” The car also had a welded all-steel frame, windows covered by heavy wire netting, and hydraulic brakes. The Golden Submarine toured the country to great acclaim. However, after Oldfield crashed into an infield lake and nearly drowned, he rebuilt the car as a conventional open cockpit racer without a roof[[7]. This episode illustrates that a safety feature designed to protect against one hazard may increase the risk from another. Roll cages wouldn’t become common on race cars until the 1950s.

Sometimes racers who installed novel safety features faced opposition from sanctioning and track officials. Beginning in the 1930s, some drivers used lap or shoulder belts to hold themselves in the seat on rough tracks. While practicing at Indianapolis in 1941, Joie Chitwood discovered “I couldn’t hold my foot on the accelerator because I was bouncing up and down so much. I tried to get the owner to change the car and he said, ‘No, if you don’t want to drive it we’ll get someone else.’ So I went out to my dirt track car and got my seat belt and put it in the Indianapolis car. When [officials] Rex Mays and Wilbur Shaw found out about it they came to me and tried to stop me from using the belt. I told them, ‘I’m doing this so I can stay in the car and drive it. I won’t be able to qualify it if I don’t.’ They finally let me use it after I promised to release the belt if I thought I was going to crash, something I never did at Indy.[8]”

Although post-war stock car racers quickly adopted roll bars, the open-wheel fraternity was slower to accept them. Some Sprint Car and Midget drivers thought roll bars reflected badly on their own courage, while others claimed they would make other drivers too brave and willing to crash their rivals. Nevertheless, single-hoop bars became fairly common on Midgets and Sprint Cars by the mid 1950s. Indianapolis did not require them until 1959. Greater resistance came against the four-post roll cages that were becoming commonplace on Modified and Supermodified stock cars. Beginning in 1958, some Supermodified racers installed inverted airfoils or “wings” on top of their roll cages, dramatically increasing speed through the turns. By the middle 1960s, dirt-track Supers were evolving into winged Sprint Cars. Non-winged traditionalists continued to resist roll cages, although some opportunists used bolt-on cages so they could race both with and without a wing. This situation continued until 1970, when several top-level non-wing drivers lost their lives in crashes they probably would have survived in a caged car. All of the major Sprint Car and Midget clubs required full roll cages the following season.

Occasionally a widely publicized mishap or tragedy prompted governmental intervention in racing safety. The results sometimes were less than exemplary. An example comes from Vermont, my native state. The scene was Colchester Raceway, a makeshift dirt oval near Vermont’s largest city, Burlington. During stock car races on September 24, 1950 two cars locked wheels and careened off the first turn toward a crowd of spectators. Two women and a 12-year-old girl were struck. The women were hospitalized with broken bones; the girl was treated and released. The Vermont State’s Attorney happened to be attending the races. First he charged the speedway owner with violating “blue laws” that forbade certain sports and entertainments on Sundays[9]. (The irony that the attorney violated the law by attending the races escaped him.) By 1950 such antiquated laws had fallen out of favor; the legislature repealed them in 1951. But in the same act, the lawmakers inserted various provisions aimed at safer racetracks. Among them were that all tracks must be surrounded by fences at least 3 feet high of wire mesh or planks[10]. This was an obvious nod to the Champlain Valley Exposition (CVE) and Rutland State Fair, state-owned facilities that held auto races on horse tracks surrounded by board fences.

The statute enabled the fairs to carry on with woefully inadequate crash barriers, far inferior to those used at private speedways. My research has not turned up a single case of serious injury to a spectator or off-track participant at any private Vermont speedway after 1950. The record at the CVE and Rutland Fairs stands in contrast: In four separate incidents at the CVE between 1952 and 1964, a mechanic was killed and nine spectators were injured by cars and parts of cars that tore through flimsy barriers. During the same time frame at the Rutland State Fair, a loose wheel left the fairgrounds and seriously injured a man walking on the sidewalk, and off-course stock cars damaged a food stand and spectators’ autos, fortunately without personal injuries[11]. The carnage is more remarkable considering that the state fairs held auto races only once or twice a year, whereas private racetracks generally operate weekly from late spring through early fall. The Rutland and CVE fairs discontinued motor racing in 1972 and 1982, respectively.

Conclusions

In reviewing the development of privately owned roads in the United States it would be easy to overlook the existence of motor sport tracks. However, they represent an important segment of that history. When poor design of government-built and government-owned roadways results in accidents and death, no government bureaucrat suffers financially. There is a disconnect between ownership of the roads and responsibility for what happens on them. As the Vermont state fair examples show, a similar lax attitude toward safety can enter when a governmental body owns and operates a racing facility.

A host of improvements can be credited for safer racing, including improved helmets, seat belts, roll cages, fuel cells, and fire-resistant clothing. The wooden fences that once surrounded racetracks have given way to earth, concrete, and steel barriers topped by heavy wire fences to catch loose wheels and parts. A remarkable aspect is that virtually all of these improvements have come about as a result of private, voluntary action on the part of racing organizations, speedway owners, manufacturers, foundations, and racers themselves. An inherently dangerous sport like auto racing is never likely to remain accident-free, but under a system which includes private ownership of the race tracks, rules set by the sanctioning bodies or track owners and competition to keep drivers and spectators safe, a voluntaryist regime has resulted in a very satisfactory track record.

Footnotes

[1] Allan E. Brown, The History of America’s Speedways Past & Present, 4th edition, 2017, Comstock Park, MI, p. 1-7.
[2] Allan E. Brown, The History of America’s Speedways Past & Present, 4th edition, 2017, Comstock Park, MI, p. xi.
[3] https://www.kandkinsurance.com/Pages/CompanyHistory.aspx
[4] https://www.sprintcarhof.com/pages/hall-of-fame.aspx
[5] www.smf.org/about
[6] National Speed Sport News, June 15, 1955, p. 3.
[7] Herb Anastor, Area Auto Racing News, March 24, 2020, p. 13-15.
[8] Jim Russell and Ed Watson, Safe at Any Speed, The Great Double Career of Joie Chitwood, Witness Productions, Marshall, Indiana, 1992, p. 76.
[9] Burlington Free Press. Vermont daily newspaper.
[10] “An Act to Regulate Motor Vehicle Racing”, approved May 18, 1951, Laws of Vermont No. 183, p. 270-272.
[11] Burlington Free Press and Rutland Herald, Vermont daily newspapers.

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