Driver Michael Waltrip came through his car’s new escape hatch to wave to the crowd after his win at the EA Sports 500.
From soft wall technology to ease the impact of crashes to the HANS device for head and neck protection, NASCAR has been working overtime in an effort to make stock car racing as safe as is realistically possible. The newest safety feature is an escape hatch on the roof, which provides an alternate exit for pilots who need to make a quick getaway from the machines.
The device is not mandatory and some drivers, such as seven-time winner Ryan Newman, are taking a wait-and-see attitude about it. But Michael Waltrip had the kit on his NAPA-sponsored Chevrolet for the EA SPORTS 500 – a race he won. A day before the race he demonstrated the hatch, and after he won he even came through it and waved to the crowd.
“As a racecar driver, whether you’re talking about the track surface and the groove or the cars, you want options,” Waltrip says. “If a guy’s running low, you want a chance to run high. If you’re in a wreck and you’re boxed up against the wall and you can’t get out the left side, you want an option.
“The roof hatch has certainly given us that. I’m real proud for NASCAR and their development of it and for my team for implementing it.”
The hatch has been in the works for 13 months and was created by the NASCAR Research and Development Center. Both Winston Cup and Busch drivers have the option of using it.
The kit, which is available through independent vendors, costs roughly $150 and takes teams about 15 hours to install. Waltrip says the hatch is not intended to be a primary exit. “No, it can bend the car,” he says. “And it’s just as easy to get out through (the door window). What I envision one day is that our cars are bigger, and getting out the window in a regular way will be very comfortable and easy to do. Hopefully we’re working toward having larger race cars so you can get in and out easier.”
Newman decided against altering his Dodge for the EA SPORTS 500 in order to install the hatch.
“We’re going to wait a while before we test any safety hatches,” he says. “[Crew Chief] Matt Borland and I took time a while back to check out what NASCAR has in mind, and for the time being we’re going to sit tight on that one and see how other drivers perceive them.”
Defending Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart is all for the new safety measure.
“It’s great, especially the way the headsets are these days to protect you in case of an impact,” Stewart says. “They’re big and bulky, and if you had to get out of a car in case of a fire, it would make it increasingly difficult, especially if you were penned in with the left side of the car.
“Now we have another escape. It’s one of a lot of good things happening in NASCAR.”
Waltrip’s team tested the new device at Daytona, and his was the only car sporting the device at Talladega.
Slugger Labbe, Waltrip’s crew chief, says the escape hatch will become popular with the rest of NASCAR competitors if the sanctioning body gives a weight break to the cars that utilize it.
“We’ve got 18 cars in the shop and only one driver,” Labbe says. “It would kill me to see him on fire with the driver’s side up against the wall and not be able to get out on the right side. This is something we need to do, and we’re going to look at doing it to all our cars next year.
“It’s kind of a disadvantage for the weight, but for your driver to be safe offsets all that.”
Matt Kenseth is the firstWinston Cup champion with just a single victory since Benny Parsons in 1973.
Matt Kenseth’s Cruise Control Title
In its long history, NASCAR Winston Cup racing has had its share of epic points battles – championship chases that literally came down to the final race of the season.
Then there are those years in which one driver sets the pace early, gets out to a lead and spends each weekend working at keeping his opponents comfortably behind him. In 2003, that man was Matt Kenseth.
Going into the last few races of the 2003 schedule, Kenseth held a solid points lead. His DeWalt Racing Ford won his first Cup crown and give team owner Jack Roush his inaugural championship with a fourth in the second to last race of the season.
Before those last few races, Kenseth was calmly confident. “We’re pretty comfortable where we’re at,” says Kenseth. “We don’t want to get too overly confident because there are still some races left, but every week that goes by you look at where you’re at and you start to feel good.”
While Ryan Newman has an incredible seven wins and Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson have four and three, respectively, Kenseth is tied with 11 other drivers who have found victory lane just one time this year. But NASCAR awards consistency, and Kenseth has been a model of it from wire to wire.
In the first 28 events Kenseth posted 10 top-five showings and 22 top 10s, far and away the best mark in Winston Cup. Only Newman had more top-five finishes (11).
“Basically, every race we just try to get up front, lead as many laps as we can and get as many points as we can get,” he says. “Our whole team has been together for quite a while, and it’s a great motivator to know we’re on the same page every race.
“But even so, you don’t know what else might happen on the track, so you just try to keep working and get to a championship level.”
Kenseth took his first DNF of the season at Talladega, but it was one of the few poor showings he has had during his run to the title.
“We’ve had some good runs on plate tracks this year, except for the Daytona 500,” he said. “But that was my call to pit before it rained.
“The other two races were top 10s, and that’s what we’ll be looking for next time around.”
Meet the Driver
Hometown: Spring Lake, Mich.
Sprague is a former NASCAR Craftsman Truck pilot who is still trying to make his way in NASCAR’s big leagues. He won three truck titles and is also a 20-time winner on the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series.