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NASCAR silence paid for in trust

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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2001

Time was, the question was easy.

Do you like NASCAR?

It was one of those questions that defined a person. Simple but revealing. How you answered put you into this side of the room or that one. You were either someone who appreciated the skills of the death-defying sport or you weren't. You were either someone who made the same old country-music, tobacco-spitting cracks or you were someone who explained about all the doctors and lawyers in the stands.

Things were easy then. You knew which side you belonged to, and you knew which role to play.

These days things are more complicated. The death of a hero can do that. And because of it, the question has changed.

Do you trust NASCAR?

More and more, this seems to be the bigger question. More and more, the sanctioning body of the sport resembles some huge, mysterious organization that provides little in the way of information and less in the way of accuracy. More and more, NASCAR seems to want to talk less and less.

Since the death of driver Dale Earnhardt, those who run NASCAR have acted as if they resent the lingering questions about a hero's passage. They will tell you they are running some sort of double-secret investigation but no details of it. They won't even say who is doing the testing. Or where. They act as if the death of a public figure in a public forum is their private matter.

Trust us, they seem to be saying.

Would we lie to you?

All this is open to debate because an independent crash expert, Duke University's Dr. Barry Myers, contradicted Monday the theory promoted by NASCAR. No, he said, it wasn't the broken seat belt that caused the death of Earnhardt. It was a violent head whip caused when Earnhardt's car hit the wall. What NASCAR had gone out of its way to imply simply wasn't true.

There are two possibilities here. The first, of course, is that NASCAR made a mistake. That it saw a broken seat belt and a driver's wheel hit so hard it bent, and it assumed Earnhardt died because of it.

But if NASCAR was wrong, isn't that evidence it needed better experts, and more of them? If it can be so wrong so fast -- and other experts had predicted all along that head whip would be the conclusion of any investigation -- then perhaps it shouldn't be the only one in charge of the investigation. Perhaps law enforcement, perhaps outside experts, should be retained.

The second possibility is more sinister. What if the seat belt was a diversion? What if NASCAR simply wanted the questions to go away about whether head restraints should be required, so it offered another reason in the faulty seat belt? Remember: If not for the autopsy investigation, fought by NASCAR, we'd still be calling the broken belt the reason for Earnhardt's death.

Why might NASCAR lead us astray? Because now that we know Earnhardt died of head whip, the debate about the HANS system is going to come up all over again. It is true Myers stopped short of saying the HANS system could have prevented Earnhardt's death, but he acknowledged it had the potential to do so. And if a piece of equipment required on other racing circuits -- the same as belts or roll bars -- would save lives, then the pressure mounts on those who run the sport.

Besides, if NASCAR were so wrong about the seat belt, how can it be so right about the HANS device?

If there is such a doubt about NASCAR today, president Mike Helton and his officers need to realize they have invited it. The more you refuse to say anything, the more people think something is there. And so it has been. There have been times NASCAR seems more concerned with obfuscating the facts than uncovering them. But if NASCAR is going to keep our trust, it needs to answer questions as best it can. This isn't the CIA.

In the end, it gets down to this. Do you trust those who run NASCAR to look for the right answers? Do you trust their ability to find them, their commitment to use them to add as much safety as possible to the sport?

It's odd. I don't know of a single football fan who trusts the NFL, or a single boxing fan who trusts any of the organizations that run boxing, or a baseball fan who trusts Major League Baseball to do anything other than what lies in its self-interest.

Many racing fans are different. They are so accustomed to having their sport attacked that their first reaction usually is a defensive one.

I do believe this, however. Racing fans want their heroes to live as long as possible. Sometimes that means looking in the wreckage.

That's hard enough to do. In darkness, it's impossible.

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