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Satisfaction with safety an elusive goal

NASCAR vows it will not relax after two years free of major injuries.

By BRANT JAMES
Published June 25, 2005


The dream is over. Jerry Nadeau had known that for a long time. Those little lapses were annoyances in his daily life. Garage door left open. Thoughts that taper off into a blank expression.

In his workplace, they would be deadly.

The official end of Nadeau's racing career came just a few weeks ago, not with a race car obliterating itself against a concrete wall, but with his neurologists' refusal to put pen to paper. Just more than two years after Nadeau suffered severe brain trauma in a crash at Richmond Motor Speedway, his personal physician and another hired by NASCAR would not endorse paperwork to allow him to race.

Nadeau's injury in May 2003 came after a dark period. Between May 2000 and February 2001, four drivers died in race-related accidents, and the death of Dale Earnhardt, the sport's most popular driver, spurred NASCAR into a more urgent course to ensure driver safety.

It has been very successful. Steel and Foam Energy Reduction, or SAFER, barriers line likely impact spots at Nextel Cup tracks. Cars have stronger steel cages, with devices that protect heads and necks against severe impact and whiplash, with kill switches that shut off engines with stuck throttles and fuel cells that are less likely to explode.

No NASCAR driver has died on the track in one of the three major series since Earnhardt. Nobody has even missed a Nextel Cup start because of injury in the 77 races since Nadeau's accident, making the 35-year-old the most recent driver to suffer a career-ending injury. He certainly won't be the last driver injured in the most dangerous of sports. But the next will have a better chance of coming back.

Richmond announced in July 2003 it was erecting SAFER barriers on the 0.75-mile track and had them for its fall race.

"What can you do?" Nadeau said. "They obviously made some changes after my accident. There's a lot of things that obviously got better. I basically wrecked at the wrong time. It was ... unfortunate."

* * *

The process of improving safety became more organized in 1998 when NASCAR commissioned University of Nebraska highway safety expert Dean Sicking to look at ways to lessen the severity of wall impacts. But the sport endured one of its darkest periods before changes could be made.

Adam Petty, the 20-year-old grandson of NASCAR legend Richard, and son of current driver Kyle, died in a Busch Series practice on May 12, 2000 at New Hampshire International Speedway when his car hit the Turn 4 wall at near full speed. Kenny Irwin, the 1998 Cup rookie of the year, died at 30 on July 7, 2000 in Cup practice when his car struck the wall in Turn 3 in excess of 150 mph and flipped on its roof. Tony Roper died in a Truck series race in October at Texas Motor Speedway.

On Feb. 18, 2001, Earnhardt died when his No. 3 Chevrolet hit the Turn 4 wall at Daytona International Speedway on the final lap of the Daytona 500, causing a fatal basilar skull fracture.

"Certainly, with the loss of Dale Earnhardt and other race car drivers in 2000 and 2001, while that issue has always been a core value of the company, it certainly came to the forefront," said George Pyne, NASCAR's chief operating officer and its top executive on safety.

NASCAR has since spent millions improving safety, including building the 61,000-square-foot, $10-million "R and D" center in 2003.

"I think it's provided a central point for the experts to get together and come up with a plan," director Gary Nelson said. "In the past it was much more difficult to bring good eyes forward because of the logistics. You can't change one thing on the car without affecting a lot of other things, so we're able to have all the entities in one building."

NASCAR has instituted more than 200 rules changes regarding safety, including requiring inner liners in tires to lessen blowouts at high speeds, Pyne said. Window nets were mandated to keep hands in and debris out. Rigid carbon fiber seats and head and neck restraints reduce the violent physics on the body in high-speed impacts.

"I remember I got asked after the Earnhardt investigation about what we were doing and I said, "Don't ever measure us by what we say, measure us by what we do,' " he said. "If you look at what we've done in the area of safety in the last three or four years, really our actions speak for themselves. They're unprecedented."

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Each decade has produced a particular safety concern for NASCAR. In the 1960s and '70s it was "intrusion" or cars being penetrated in accidents. In the '80s and '90s, Sicking said, it was intrusion and fire. In the late '90s, it was wall impacts, the common theme in Petty, Irwin and Earnhardt accidents. Sicking was developing SAFER walls when they died. The Indy Racing League took the lead in pursuing the project, and NASCAR had begun to follow. But interest heightened after Earnhardt's death, Sicking said.

"If you look back through history, there was typically one or two fatalities a year, but they weren't big names or the sons of big names," he said. "And I think what really happened was NASCAR rolled the dice - every time they had a race there was a chance someone was going to get hurt - but those in 2000 and 2001 were either a big name or the grandson of a big name."

Motor and aerodynamics technology had advanced enough to allow stock cars to travel at speeds around 200 mph, but they still had insufficient seatbelts tethered to flexible seats. There was little hope of properly slowly a driver from such speeds, or protecting the head and neck.

"NASCAR's efforts to restrict speeds were overwhelmed by the science of making them go faster," Sicking said.

Experts contend that safety is 65 percent occupant restraint, 25 percent absorption of energy upon impact and the last 10 percent the structure of the vehicle. That didn't make drivers, especially stockier ones such as Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart, more amenable to wearing a HANS device that reduces head mobility and can create a claustrophobic feel.

"There was significant resistance early on," Sicking said. "NASCAR bore the brunt of this. Folks like us in the research area, we were brought in to talk about the benefit of these things, to help NASCAR ... to convince the drivers that the HANS was the right way to go and that improving the cockpit was the right thing to do.

"For the first two or three drivers who put the HANS on and had a stiff seat, after they had their first crash or two, it started to go by word of mouth. Then many drivers picked it up pretty quick. I think ultimately, seeing is believing for a lot of this stuff."

Jeff Burton knows that all too well. While attending a Ford safety meeting in the late '90s, Burton was stunned to hear racing engineer John Melvin - who helped develop "black box" data recorders for race cars - describe the inadequacies of the seats. Convinced, Burton helped develop the design for a composite material seat and crafted one of the first rigid aluminum seats in NASCAR. He was also among the first to use a self-designed net device that served as a primitive head support.

"I remember having discussions with some of the more experienced drivers over why I was doing it and they were like, "Man, you're crazy,' " Burton recalls. "There's a lot of different personalities in this world and some personalities feel better if they don't know anything. And when we have that situation it's good to have a system that takes care of those guys."

Burton, still a leader among drivers in pushing safety issues, is wary of the sport assuming that it has solved those issues during this uneventful period.

"What NASCAR is doing and teams are doing and manufacturers are doing we're at an all-time high," he said. "(But) what created this situation a few years ago was I think we all got lazy. I think we looked at our record, much the way you're looking at our record today, and said, "Hey, we're having success. Don't touch anything, everything is good. Leave it alone.' And I think we lulled ourselves into thinking we were good enough and we can't let that happen again. I have a saying: Safety is an unreachable goal. We have to always be pushing the technology and using the experience and if we don't we will get behind again. And by the way, we're not as far ahead as we could be."

* * *

One of the most challenging aspects of safety is the frailty of the human body. Factors as uncontrollable as the beating of a panicked heart in the freeze-frame moments of an accident can determine a driver's fate. In April 2002, Indy Racing League driver Eliseo Salazar required open-heart surgery for a torn artery after he hit the Turn 1 wall in testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The same impact a millisecond earlier or later would have yielded a completely different result, Sicking said.

"You're putting huge (gravitational) loads on the driver and those G loads are very short duration," Sicking said. "The blood is flowing through your system continuously and your heart, when it closes that valve, the blood will ball up in front of that valve in the aorta, so the more blood there is there when you get this pull, the more likely you are to get a tear. So simple things like that can cause somebody to die."

Nadeau wore a HANS device, one restraint mandated by NASCAR after Earnhardt's death, but it did little to lessen the registered 128-G impact. Nadeau's brain kept traveling more than 100 mph as his body slowed to zero on impact, slamming his brain against the inside of his skull.

"I hit at a perfect spot," he said. "I was the fastest car (in practice) at the time and I hit totally perfect. If I hit one degree more to the front, or one degree more toward the back, I would have walked out fine, but the problem was I hit so flush with the wall, all the absorption went through my body."

Sicking stops well short of saying Petty, Irwin or Earnhardt would be alive today if they had competed under current safety conditions. But drivers have walked away from similar crashes since.

"You can never say that. You never know exactly what happened," he said. "You have to realize that safety is such a hard thing to predict, whether you live or die can come down to what sequence your heartbeat is in when you get a big hit or acceleration or how the driver is oriented the time just prior to the crash. All of these things can have an impact.

"I will say those three impacts are the kinds of impacts the SAFER barrier was designed to accommodate, but we can never say they would have been alive today had they been up."

And maybe Nadeau would still have a career. But he still considers himself the lucky one.

"It was bad timing," he said. "But I got out alive."