News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Sports Columns

July 4, 2012

TRACKSIDE: Retired driver LaJoie spreads the word of safety

In his roles as past driving champion and television analyst, Randy LaJoie has rightfully earned the reputation as a major contributor to the sport of auto racing.

With his driving days now behind him, LaJoie is currently on a bigger mission in the arena that has served him so well: that of making the sport safer. Whether it be at NASCAR superspeedways or the many weekly Saturday night short track ovals that dot the American landscape.

His mission brought him to Lincoln Park Speedway last week as the area dirt oval played host to round 12 of the UMP Summer Nationals series for late model stock cars.

Having personally escaped the potential safety pitfalls of the unpredictable — and at times, violent — ways of racing, LaJoie is doing his best to drive home the need for continued reform in all forms of safety with in the sport.

 Whether his competitors were piloting one of the more powerful late models or entry-level bomber class machines, LaJoie toured LPS pits last Tuesday talking with them.

When he saw the need for a possible upgrade in safety equipment, he didn’t hesitate to make note of it to a driver or his crew. His approach is pretty simple and genuinely sincere.

Yes, he makes his living these days selling safety equipment, but one only has to listen to LaJoie stress the need of safety improvements to fully realize the former NASCAR and modified champion’s total commitment to his crusade.

As a second-generation racer who now has a son racing, LaJoie is well-versed on the ins and outs of the sport. What he sees all too frequently can be disturbing.

“I hate hearing about a racer getting hurt because he didn’t know that the sport is so dangerous. Nobody has told them. Eighty percent of these race cars out here tonight are unsafe. People just don’t know,” voiced LaJoie.

“It’s a good thing the good Lord is a race fan, because if not, we would be burying somebody every week. There are accidents from Tuesday to Saturday. Somebody not showing up to work on Monday or playing with their kids on Sunday because they got hurt. That’s really bad,” voiced the three-time NASCAR Nationwide series champion.

“That’s why I started the non-profit Safer Racers Tour. It’s an education tour. I try to educate people on the dangers and what has to be done to make racing safer ,” he said.

Two of the biggest obstacles his cause faces is the basic mentality of those within the sport and the prohibitive expenses involved with racing.

“We’re [racers] are all gladiators. We all do it for the thrill-the excitement. We approach that it’s [injuries] not going to happen to us. NASCAR had that theory until it killed the best driver we had,” he said in reference to the tragic chain of events that claimed the life of Dale Earnhardt in 2001.

“NASCAR finally said we’re not going to kill anymore race drivers and they haven’t. I think Earnhardt is going to be better known for saving lives as that of being as good of a race driver that he was. Today, NASCAR is the safest form of racing there is the world. They continue to strive for safety.”

Dealing with the costs of driver safety might be an even bigger obstacle to overcome for those trying to make the sport safer. Financially, racers have the tendency to put performance and participation ahead of safety.

“Not many of the guys we see out there tonight do this for a living. If they get hurt racing Saturday night, and miss work on Monday, they aren’t going to have job very long,” LaJoie said.

“That’s why I’m trying to stress to these guys that, yes, a good seat, head and neck restraint might be a $1,500 investment but it could mean the difference of being able to go to work the next day or getting yourself hurt real bad,” he added.

LaJoie is quick to point out that the rate of speed doesn’t always relate to the seriousness of injuries in racing.

“They [drivers] don’t realize that even at 35 miles per hour your body might be strapped to a seat, but your head and neck might not be. You hit the wall and even at that speed and you can be dead.

“Two weeks ago, a 12-year-old kid was killed in Florida when he hit the wall at 20 mph. A mother and father lost a son and I’ve been told his hospital bill for a week was $200,000. How does that equate to a $1,500 investment? When will people wake up?” LaJoie asked.

“I’m trying to get people to pay attention. I guess you could say I’m a farmer trying to plant a seed. Its not always easy but something that has to be done.”

Joe Buckles can be reached at jbuckles4@frontier.com.

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