Tom Carson Sospes

By: Thomas Carson

November 28, 2019

Keep up with the latest movies? Ford v Ferrari starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale has hit theaters just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday!

I recently watched Matt Damon portray the iconic Carroll Shelby in Ford v Ferrari – a story about the epic clash between the motor egos of Henry Ford II and Enzo Ferrari. The film portrayed an inspiring story of how persistence and creativity from a group of colorful car guys from Southern California overturned the established motorsports order in 1965.

In spite of the drama of Hollywood (not many real drivers would stare at each other while barreling down the Mulsanne straight side-by-side at 220 mph!), the movie is pretty accurate in the actual racing environment of the period. For example, the absence of guardrails separating the spectators from the race, the lack of barriers between the fast straightaway and the service pits, and, of course, cigarette smoking where the cars are fueled in the pits is no longer an option.

Motorsports & Safety Improvements Go Hand-In-Hand?

Now, you may be wondering how a movie about racing cars and safety improvement go hand-in-hand. Motorsports have many of the same obstacles to overcome on its path to safety as other industries.

In the past, there were cultural taboos against complaining about conditions, resistance to adopting basic safety equipment – seatbelts weren’t mandatory in grand prix cars until 1972 – and spectators were often in as much danger as the drivers. The most tragic racing accident to ever occur was at Lemans in 1955 when a crash launched a Mercedes sports car through the crowd. Eighty were killed and 178 were injured in the accident.

I see a lot has changed since the days of Ford v Ferrari. Legendary racetracks like Lemans have substantially upgraded everything from racetrack barriers to fueling practices to driver protection (racer’s PPE if you will). The results are as impressive in racing as they are in America’s workplaces.

In the 48 years since OSHA was formed, the percentage of workers killed on the job dropped five-fold. During the same period, motorsports fatalities dropped by huge margins. During the 1960s and 70s, several Formula One drivers died each season. Since 1994, there has been one fatality. Even spectator deaths are extremely rare now.

Safer Today

The same approach worked for both: pioneering individuals and organizations recognized the problem and refused to accept the status quo. I happened to be directly involved in the racing world in the early 1970s when this was happening, and the most vocal advocates for safety took a lot of heat for their positions. Nevertheless, they worked tirelessly to educate all participants, promote engineering solutions and change behavior with obvious positive results. Today, both worlds are safer for it.

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