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Drivers diverge on safety

Indy competitors have kept an eye on issues in NASCAR and their series.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 27, 2001


INDIANAPOLIS -- He might want to drive in NASCAR someday, so Jimmy Vasser is careful not to say too much about safety in the stock-car sanctioning body which has endured four driver deaths in the past year.

"I think more could be done with safety in NASCAR," said Vasser, the 1996 CART champion who starts 12th in the Indianapolis 500 today. "I've tested a car. Nothing against them, they have a great safety record for as many races and cars that they run, but I think more could be done."

The HANS (head and neck support) device, crash data recorders, air bags and energy absorbing bumpers are some of the improvements Vasser and other open-wheel drivers suggest for their stock car brethren.

"Then again, we don't know what we're talking about," he said sarcastically. "We're just race car drivers."

The most talked about improvement, particularly since Dale Earnhardt's death in February at Daytona, is the HANS. Made of a composite material that rests on a driver's shoulders, it helps prevent basal skull fractures in high-speed frontal impacts. NASCAR drivers Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, Tony Roper and Earnhardt all sustained such fatal head and neck injuries. None wore the HANS.

The device is required on high-speed ovals in CART, but it is optional in the IRL and NASCAR. The IRL said last week that 15 drivers will wear the HANS in the 500, 14 will not and four were undecided. One driver wore it in last year's race.

"I don't have any business telling the sanctioning bodies how to run their business," HANS co-creator Dr. Robert Hubbard said. "I think everybody should wear one of these things. I will say that I think it's extremely important that drivers can wear it, and that means we have to go through a period of familiarization and implementation."

The HANS is standard issue for IRL driver Sarah Fisher, who has worn it since last season and feels comfortable with the fit, a major sticking point for several drivers.

"Any device that has that kind of safety feature to it and doesn't hinder or make you feel uncomfortable," she said, "I think is very appropriate and should be worn by everybody."

Former Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Lazier is convinced the device does its job in frontal impacts. It's the side and rear impacts that Lazier is skittish about.

"Sometimes you can overreact and maybe make a situation worse," said Lazier, who doesn't wear the HANS. "So as a driver I don't want to react too heavily to anything. ... It's an individual choice. It's something I will try as the season goes on and see if it's to my liking."

Derrick Walker, Fisher's team owner, is in favor of making the device mandatory but warns the chance of serious injury in auto racing remains ever present.

"Safety is a strange thing.," he said. "It's part of an evolution. It's not something that is black or white. It's a continual rubbing at the package and trying to improve on it. Sometimes what you think is the panacea right now, five years from now will be superseded with something that's even better."

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