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J. Burton in crash-free zone

Safety improvements allow driver to focus on race, not wrecks.

BRANT JAMES
Published September 6, 2003

A driver in fear for his safety, Jeff Burton said, already is beaten. Thinking about it, period, is no good.

So even though Richmond International Raceway, site of tonight's Winston Cup Chevy Rock & Roll 400, has been the scene of some of NASCAR's more nefarious accidents the past few years, even though the track has been outfitted with a system to lessen impacts with walls and therefore improve driver safety, Burton, a frequent spokesman on safety issues, doesn't want anything but racing strategy in his mind.

Accidents are bad, he said, but initially for different reasons.

"You don't want to wreck because when you wreck it takes away an opportunity from winning," said Burton, who is 13th in the points standings. "You think about getting hurt after the wreck, not before the wreck. You think about it in the shop when you're preparing your car, but when you're out there and you're practicing or racing, you're not thinking about soft walls. It doesn't even enter your mind, and if it does enter your mind, a lot of times you need to get the hell out of the car because you're thinking too much about it."

Burton was irked when Robby Gordon suggested the new Steel and Foam Energy Reduction system at RIR would encourage "racing more competitively" instead of "coming back and racing scared all night long."

"Comments like that just sound really stupid to me," Burton said. "When the race starts, when they drop the green flag, if people think that we go around the racetrack thinking, "Oh, my God, I can't make that move because I might get hurt,' man that's the last thing you're thinking of.

"A comment like that to me is ludicrous."

In fairness, Gordon, who often is criticized by other drivers for his unpopular comments or on-track actions, was not alone in praise of the soft walls.

"I guarantee that if you start spinning and you're heading toward that wall, you're going to be thinking about it a little bit," defending Cup champion Tony Stewart said.

It's hard not to considering Richmond's history. Still fresh is the image of Jerry Nadeau being cut from his car after crashing during a practice session before the May race. The 32-year-old suffered head, lung and rib injuries and broke a shoulder blade when he hit the wall driver's side first. Nadeau did not regain consciousness for three weeks.

Bobby Hamilton and Johnny Benson also missed races after crashing at Richmond. Derrike Cope broke his shoulder, fractured a leg and injured his knee in a Turn 1 crash in 2002.

Richmond remains a favorite among drivers, but some of the same reasons they enjoy it contribute to the danger. Races at RIR average almost 50 mph slower than at superspeedways, but at the odd three-quarter-mile length, speeds such as Mike Skinner's pole-winning 125.792 are attainable. RIR's 14-degree banked turns and double groove allow two-wide racing, but high entry speed into those turns has created some of the most devastating impacts recorded by in-car transponders. Hours before Skinner won the pole, he crashed his No.01 Pontiac coming out of Turn 4 - missing the soft-wall barrier - and had to qualify in a backup car. Christian Fittipaldi and Steve Park crashed into the soft wall in Turn 1 during qualifying Friday.

"There has long been a theory the faster you go, the better opportunity (there is) to get hurt," said Burton, who qualified seventh. "It doesn't matter how fast you go, it's at what angle you hit and how hard you hit the wall. What we learned is that on the shorter tracks, we've seen larger wrecks based on the angle you hit the wall and the speed you hit the wall."

The convergence of dangerous elements prompted RIR officials to become the second on the circuit - with Indianapolis Motor Speedway - to install soft walls. Covering 1,197 feet in the turns, the 401/2-inch walls use steel tubes and 22-inch-think Styrofoam layers to insulate the existing barrier.

While recent safety innovations such as the HANS and Hutchens devices have been implemented within cars, the SAFER system is among the first that does not burden drivers or increase their equipment.

All the better, Burton said, to allow him to concentrate on his job.

"The main thing I'm interested in, and I hate to sound simplistic," he said, "is I have the greatest opportunity not to be injured as I can possibly have."

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