Photo By Gabriel Stovall
Driver Tye Mihoko, who races in the Young Lions divison at Thursday Thunder, looks on as his No. 5 Legends car gets hooked up to a tow truck after a spin out at Atlanta Motor Speedway earlier this summer.
Google Joey Padgett and you’ll find a YouTube video of him driving his Bandolero car on the Charlotte Motor Speedway three years ago, fighting for position in a quagmire of five cars during a heat race for the Bandolero Triple Crown.
For the first 61seconds of the video, it looked like just another day at the race track for Padgett. Things changed for him the next second, however. It was then where the video shows Padgett’s car beginning a series of 3 1/2 flips from the lap’s second turn all the way into the wall.
Just as you see Padgett’s car begin to unravel, the video abruptly stops.
That’s because the cameraman was Joey’s father, Danny.
“I obviously didn’t know at the moment all this was going to happen,” said Danny Padgett as he described the scene playing out on his cell phone camera. “I just know that the last 20 minutes was recorded in my pocket because I was trying to make it to my son.”
Joey was out cold for seven minutes. Security wouldn’t let Danny get to him. Medical personnel was immediately on the scene. A helicopter was called just in case, but later waved off.
When Danny Padgett got to the hospital and stood at the bedside of his son, he was worried about his condition. Worried about his prognosis. Racing was the last thing on Danny Padgett’s mind.
But it was the first thing on Joey’s
“He said to me, ‘Dad, I think we’ve got the back up car in the trailer. Can we go back to the track?,’” Danny Padgett said.
Such is the heart of a true racer. Age 12 at the time of the accident, Joey had already developed the nerves of steel that every successful driver must have in order to face each lap and turn knowing that one false move can change the complexion of your career — or your life.
But Joey Padgett says he doesn’t even think about such things after settling in behind the wheel.
“My grandma and mom do,” he said. “But they’ve been nervous from the start. I never worry about getting hurt. Things are so safe. More so than other sports. I just try to race safe and go with the flow.”
Safety has always been a top priority in racing. But it probably never received higher billing than 11 years ago when NASCAR legend, Dale Earnhardt, Sr. wrecked into the wall at the 2001 Daytona 500.
The accident claimed his life and sent NASCAR officials scrambling to enhance safety requirements that would trickle down to all levels of the sport.
Such added features in some cars include more inside panels for greater reinforcement as well as the ability to purchase custom made seats that fit each driver’s size and frame specifically — especially for the younger drivers.
But of all the safety enhancements, perhaps none have caught on more than the Head And Neck Safety (HANS) device. It is a U-shaped device that attaches behind the neck with two arms that lay flat against the chest.
The HANS is designed to provide maximum stability to the head and neck, especially useful for holding both in place in accidents where there car jerks violently or stops abruptly.
Optional in 2001 before Earnhardt’s fatal crash, NASCAR mandated it shortly after and the results have been positive.
In the 11 years since the HANS device’s adoption, NASCAR has recorded zero crash fatalities. In the 11-year period before Earnhardt’s death, 10 NASCAR drivers died, including three in 2000 alone.
Ed Clark, president of the Atlanta Motor Speedway, and a Legends car racer himself, said the results are just as impressive in the sports grassroots divisions.
“I think it’s been over 15 years since I’ve heard of a real serious wreck on this level of racing,” Clark said.
“We’ve never had a death here in Atlanta during that time. These drivers here wear the same suits, helmets, gloves and safety equipment that the Sprint Cup drivers wear. Everything here has to have the same safety and approval ratings.”
Considering the thousands of laps racers of all levels take around various tracks across the nation each year, the comparably low fatal crash numbers should be encouraging — especially to parents who may be teetering the fence on whether to let their son or daughter race.
However, when a serious crash does take place, it often seems to cast a dark shadow over the sport.
Such was the case with Tyler Morr of Arcadia, FL who was critically injured during a May 22 stock car race at the Auburndale Speedway in Winter Haven, Fla. His car was traveling only at about 40 miles per hour when another car bumped Morr causing him to hit the wall.
According to a May 22 article published in the Tampa Bay Times, Morr died of his injuries the next day, causing an outcry from parents in the area, but also sparking a defense of youth racing by other parents.
Parents of Thursday Thunder drivers similarly understand the risks of racing, but heartily defend its safety.
“I’ve seen more kids carried off on football and soccer fields than race tracks,” said Bethanie Smithey, mother of Garrett Smithley, a Semi-Pro division driver at Thursday Thunder. “They mandate so much safety now that I’m more concerned with Garrett driving on the interstate than I am with him on the race track.”
Amy Jorgensen, mother of Outlaws division points leader, Taylor Jorgensen, said her daughter feels safer in her Bandolero than in a regular four-door sedan.
“Taylor just got her driver’s license, but I think we’re both more afraid of her driving a regular car,” Amy Jorgensen said.
“They just don’t have the same safety stuff,” Taylor chimed in.
As for Joey Padgett, life after the 2009 Charlotte Speedway has been kind to him. He’s currently No. 2 in the INEX Points standings for the Young Lions’ Division. He’s got his father’s confidence back. Danny Padgett said after watching his son emerge from the Charlotte class virtually unscathed -- he had a few minor bruises, he doesn’t worry any more.
“In comparison, when Joey was riding an off-road vehicle once, he broke his arm,” Danny Padgett said. “He’s never broken anything on the race track.”