When Denny Hamlin got out of his car and collapsed after a scary looking last-lap crash I said, “I bet he fractured a vertebrae.”
The rule with racing is that the more dramatic the wreck the more survivable it probably is. All of the rolling and breaking bleeds energy. The problem with Hamlin’s wreck is he hit the wall at almost a 90 degree angle, rode up the wall a few feet and then crashed down. No drama, debris flying into the stands, it looks pretty dull, so dull the cameras didn’t even follow it.
It was confirmed Monday that Hamlin has in fact fractured his L-1 vertebrae, which hopefully sounds scarier than it really is. People hear “Broken back” and assume there is going to be some level of paralysis, and that’s not always the case. Without knowing the extent of his injuries it’s beyond the scope of my knowledge to talk about his prognosis, and so I won’t do that. However, as a nursing student, and as race fan this is something I’m somewhat familiar with.
First off just a little bit of anatomy, your spinal column is broken down into three sections, your neck, or cervical, the thoracic, which runs from your shoulders down the rib cage, and the lumbar. The lumbar vertebrae basically run from the bottom of your rib cage to your pelvis. From the lumbar nerves that control your pelvis and legs originate and spread out from the spinal cord, and it is a critical link in the structure that supports the weight of your upper body. The vertebrae gets bigger and stronger as you go lower on the spine because it supports more weight.
Fractured vertebrae are something we have seen before in auto racing. During practice for the Champ Car’s season opening Las Vegas Grand Prix in 2007 Paul Tracy got into the wall at about 40 miles an hour. His car ran up the wall and then dropped a total of about three feet. It wasn’t a major accident, I want to say Oriol Servia even drove that chassis in the race. The problem wasn’t the impact, it was the fall.
I found this video of Tracy explaining his injury to Dave Despain on Wind Tunnel. Basically he says that his belts weren’t adjusted correctly, his pelvis shifted forward and his spine got out of position and the resulting pressure fractured his L-1 vertebrae and he was out for three months.
In 2011 Justin Wilson fractured his T-5 vertebra when he ran off the grass during practice at Mid Ohio. His car took a small hop, came down on all four wheels and the resulting energy was enough to fracture the part of his spine that faces the breast bone. Wilson missed the rest of the season, approximately three months.
In the 2011 accident that killed Dan Wheldon Will Power got airborne, and flew 200 feet according to some reports, and crashed back to the track with enough force to fracture his T-4 vertebrae.
I have no idea what Hamlin’s injury looks like, but the reason it’s predictable is because race cars aren’t built to protect drivers from vertical impacts. The suspension is meant to keep the car as close to the ground as possible, and has very little give. Unlike rally and off-road racing where there is a foot or more of suspension travel there isn’t any in NASCAR or Indycar. So when a car gets airborne and comes down on all four wheels there is no cushioning, no energy absorbing crumple zone, nothing to eat up the energy and it can fracture spines.
This isn’t an indictment of the sanctioning bodies. Indycar designed the current chassis to include more padding, and the seating position of drivers to better protect the drivers when they get airborne. The reason it doesn’t happen in NASCAR as often is that the car there tends to roll, which bleeds off energy, and most of the time the driver can walk away. It’s probably aerodynamics and weight but I don’t see NASCAR stockers getting airborne and coming down on all four wheels like Denny Hamlin’s car did.
Like I said, I’m not a medical expert, just a guy who watches a lot of racing and going through nursing school. I have no idea what Hamlin’s prognosis is. If you’re the sort of person who prays though, I’m sure he would appreciate it.