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Stop dragging feet on driver safety

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 13, 2001


You're blistering in 190-mile-an-hour circles. Ovals, really. Drafting. Scrimmaging for position. Heart hammering. There are radio communications with pit allies. Trying to plan the next 10, 20 or 50 laps.

Multitude is cheering. Network television covering, from low-groove passes to high-speed crew work. NASCAR racing is your passion, your career, your life. Maybe even family tradition.

Something goes wrong.

Faster than a gnat's eyeblink, ahead on the track, a terrible and unavoidable barrier arises. Another car, maybe more. A concrete wall. Nothing you can do. You crash. Body shivers. Tires squeal. Sheet metal crumples. There is violent pop of your head, stressing the neck.

Do you die?

Kenny Irwin did, just a few months ago. So too Adam Petty, causing a 50-year motor racing dynasty to "just evaporate," according to Richard Petty, the Babe Ruth of NASCAR and grandfather to the 19-year-old heir.

Critics of auto racing have, since the '50s when Richard's pop, Lee, was a NASCAR wizard, sneered about crowds "showing up in hopes of seeing bad wrecks; some blood; maybe a death." Ignorant hogwash.

NASCAR's foundation has experienced colossal growth. Crowds of 100,000-plus are constants at a half-dozen tracks. Television income and ratings have zoomed. NASCAR is a business that is bigger, richer and more visible than ever.

Most patrons at a race track enjoy tough, door-to-door combat, maybe with a few metal bending nudges, but the ones who hunger for killer crashes compose a smaller minority than Mensa representation at Mons Venus.

How many of ignorant, pop-off critics truly noticed the love, care and public mourning with the multiple Allison tragedies? You'll see signs at Daytona that profess both adoration and hatred for a Dale Earnhardt or a Jeff Gordon, but don't overread the dislike.

NASCAR people are prone to care.

I had been long convinced, since Ned Jarrett and not son Dale was an accelerator-stomping horsepower hero, that NASCAR bosses put safety ahead of everything: speed, thrills, trophies and even money. But, after an especially deadly 2000, you wonder.

After a six-month investigation, the Orlando Sentinel concluded, "Adam Petty should be alive today. So should Kenny Irwin. So should five of six other NASCAR drivers killed during the past decade; at least 12 of 15 who died in major racing worldwide since 1991."

In racing calamities, the most constant killer is basal skull fractures and similar injuries caused by violent head movement. You've seen the dummies fly in those seat-belt demonstrations. Imagine at 190.

When an automobile is moving 3 miles a minute, in competitive traffic, the risks are evident. Traditional NASCAR harnesses appear to have been surpassed by latter-day technical creations.

Buckle down, NASCAR!

Drivers understand risks but also trust governing organizations to make daredevil life as safe as possible. There is a nagging fact as NASCAR revs toward its Daytona 500 showpiece.

Evidence keeps stacking that unimplemented technology could be sparing lives in crackups. In speedway garages, where roaring motors can be deafening, it may be the loudest Speedweeks subject.

Reporters are pressing. Probing. Petty's name is constantly heard, and Irwin's. Drivers and crews are pondering. Above all, they discuss and debate HANS, a head-and-neck restraint now mandated by Formula One and CART, two high-profile and global racing styles.

HANS hasn't been a quick sell. It was invented 20 years ago by Dr. Robert Hubbard, a professor of biomechanical engineering at Michigan State.

Ford and GM engineers are quietly pushing drivers to employ HANS. Brett Bodine has been a user since July and has "found no negatives." If there is a voice with a well-backed reason for not using HANS, let's hear it.

Gary Nelson, NASCAR chief technical officer, says, "Safety is No. 1 on our list. It always has been. Our record proves it."

True, for most of high-speed NASCAR history, since the lethal '60s when wonderful old vroom-vroom icons such as Fireball Roberts and Tiny Lund were killed, the Daytona motorsports kingdom has worked admirably in safety pursuits. But it's a chase in which no slack is allowed.

Hubbard says adaptations still are needed to amply integrate HANS into the driver environment in NASCAR machines. Ford safety experts have installed "blue box" recorders in CART racers, to measure effects and causes when a wreck occurs. How much evidence must NASCAR have?

Another safety possibility is so-called "soft walls" to replace the cinderblock mentality. A crushable, resilient material such as polyethlene or high-density foam that, if it can withstand high-speed automotive contact, would appear to make huge sense.

Testing on revolutionary walls continues. Surely a costly prospect, but NASCAR is a cash cow that cannot afford to bypass anything that will help enhance the safety of drivers, crew members and spectators in the stands.

Gentlemen, start your ... coping as fully as possible with challenges and methods of the 21st century.

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