COPPER HILL, VA :: A senseless tragedy in Florida this past weekend reminded us all of the importance of safety.  A tragic head-on collision with a concrete barrier claimed the life of Niokoa Johnson, 15, over the weekend at Bubba Raceway Park in Florida.  We all grieve for Niokoa Johnson’s family and while death in racing is not always avoidable, it is more avoidable now than it was over a decade ago.

Safety is not something that should be taken for granted and it’s not an area where racers should try to save a little money.  However, 13 years after the death of Dale Earnhardt, the requirement for drivers to wear head-and-neck restraints is not standard in the short track racing ranks.  That needs to change and perhaps now is the time for that change.

Over the years, the sport has evolved.  Over the years, roll cages, firesuits and helmets have become mandatory in every form of stock car racing.  Now, it’s time for head-and-neck restraints to become part of the basic, standard safety rules in racing.

There will always be a risk when drivers climb in to a racecar but that doesn’t mean we should not minimize the risks.

I do see the flip side and the conundrum promoters face with the subject of driver safety.  Some tracks could lose several racecars by mandating head-and-neck safety devices.  Fact of the matter is, racecar drivers can be stubborn and they’ll be the first to admit such.  Many drivers will not wear a HANS device for a variety of reasons, none of which make any logical sense when you consider the number of lives head-and-neck restraints have save.

So, with that said, things stand with a status-quo where racetracks strongly recommend head-and-neck restraints but do not require them.  That should change.  I’m sure there will always be tracks that don’t require them, but perhaps just about every track should.

While short tracks should always work to keep the costs down for competitors, driver safety is not an area where cutting costs should be implemented.  There is no price on human life.  It’s time for head-and-neck restraints to become mandatory, everywhere.

At the end of the day, we all know that racing is dangerous and it’s part of the appeal.  While there is still progress to be made in terms of driver safety, let us all sit back and realize that no other sport in America has attempted to make their sport safer the way auto racing, as a whole, has.  Take football for instance.  The number of fatalities involving teenagers who play high school football surpasses the number of teenagers who die in auto racing accidents.  That doesn’t include the countless young lives lost in automobile accidents on the highway someplace, somewhere or the number of lives lost each year from smoking tobacco.

There is always progress to be made on the driver safety front.  Hopefully, that progress will continue to be made because one life lost on the racetrack is one too many.