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Information, unity important for safety

NASCAR drivers are comparing notes more, thus emulating their open-wheel counterparts.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 22, 2001


TALLADEGA, Ala. -- The names and accents are different, but the intentions are identical.

Like Jackie Stewart and Niki Lauda did throughout their Formula One careers, more and more NASCAR drivers are purposefully striving to make their chosen profession less lethal.

Four NASCAR drivers have died in 10 months. The last, Dale Earnhardt, was the biggest name in the business and the sport's sanctioning body is still months from announcing the results of an internal investigation.

Drivers aren't waiting.

"Usually nobody goes and looks at anybody else's race cars," Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte said. "But now you invite people over to look at your race car so they can see what you've done. We talk about safety more than ever."

Safety will be on the mind of every driver during the Talladega 500 today at Talladega Superspeedway. It's the first restrictor-plate race since the Daytona 500, a race that included a 19-car pileup and a last lap crash that killed Earnhardt.

Aerodynamic modifications first required by NASCAR here in October and horsepower-choking restrictor plates slow cars and bunch the field, creating the possibility of massive wrecks on the 2.66-mile track.

"(My wife) always gets nervous about these races," said Jeff Gordon, the defending race winner. "I've tried to give her some comfort. I tell her we've got every safety measure possible in the car right now and I'm going to be as safe as I can, try not to do anything dumb out there."

Thirty-three drivers, including Gordon, will wear one of two head and neck restraint devices designed to prevent the basal skull fractures blamed for all four fatal accidents. At least six wore such devices, including the HANS (head and neck support), in the Daytona 500.

Among the other safety innovations being developed are improved seat design, steering columns, padding and leg braces. Six-point seat belts are becoming more popular. Teams also are researching ways to change the car's front ends to soften head-on collisions. "Really, this is an unprecedented time in our sport," Labonte said.

It harkens to F1, where Stewart fought to improve safety standards and medical facilities after his wreck in 1966 at Spa, Belgium, left him soaked in gasoline. Lauda, nearly killed in a fiery 1976 wreck in Germany, campaigned for safety when two drivers, including legend Ayrton Senna, died in 1994.

NASCAR drivers are gaining knowledge held by biomechanical engineers, medical experts and manufacturer reps and also are taking to the Internet to see what's being done in CART, Indy Racing and Formula One.

"From what I understand, all the racing organizations probably talk back and forth as far as safety goes, too," said Labonte, who recently switched to seat belts made by Willans, an English company that provides restraint systems for Formula One. "We've got to think about what they're doing."

Talk of a Winston Cup drivers' safety committee began less than a week after Earnhardt's death when Todd Bodine spoke up at North Carolina Speedway, but has since faded.

"We as drivers don't have a voice," he said. "We need to start having a voice in what happens in what some of the rules are."

CART and IRL drivers share the Championship Driver's Association. Formula One has a similar committee.

Bodine's public appeal was quashed swiftly by NASCAR officials and admonished by fellow competitors.

"That kind of got blown out of proportion by one guy that screwed the whole deal honestly. That's why he'd never be a part of it," Labonte said.

NASCAR did have a driver organization in the late 1960s.

Led by Richard Petty, the Professional Driver's Association boycotted the inaugural Talladega 500 in 1969 over safety concerns.

Dave Marcis, who agreed to the PDA's boycott, thinks a driver organization might work, as could one run by the car owners.

"They're paying the bills," he said. "It's not going to be up to the drivers to demand stuff. It's going to be up to the car owners. They're going to do it. They're going to want a bigger piece of the pie."

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