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Answers given, not hope

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By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 22, 2001


They understand, better than they should, the etiquette of tragedy. The hushed tones. The bowed heads. The offers of thoughts and prayers.

Their sadness is genuine and their pain is real. When they speak of their tomorrows, they recognize they somehow will be less than their yesterdays.

The folks at NASCAR understand what it is like to live with death.

So why do they continue to court it?

One serious injury or death is one too many. This is what NASCAR president Mike Helton said Tuesday, and who could argue that?

Yet the stock car racing conglomerate has been a witness to death four times in barely a year and has reacted with tremendous frowns. They seem to treat tragedy with a reverance instead of raging against it.

This was their opportunity. This was the moment they begged everyone to await. The time when they would release their findings on Dale Earnhardt's death, and offer reassurance for other lives.

They came with experts. With charts and diagrams. They wore serious faces and talked of serious business. And, essentially, they said very little.

For more than an hour, the experts explained their research, which was meticulous and convincing. They explained the forces that were at work inside the car when Earnhardt was struck broadside by Ken Schrader and then slammed at a precarious angle into a wall at nearly 160 mph. They presented a highly plausible explanation of how Earnhardt died.

But what good are answers when they are not used for solutions?

NASCAR's response to the most extensive investigation in the industry's history was a knowing nod and a somber promise to continue investigating.

Helton said he was delighted so many drivers have begun using neck-and-head support systems in the wake of these four deaths, but said he will not make the safety feature mandatory. In essence, NASCAR is willing to endorse the devices but is afraid to regulate them. Liability, after all, can be a bear.

And, yet, Adam Petty's death was one too many.

Not included in the formal part of Tuesday's presentation was the question of how stock cars fail to absorb the impact of head-on crashes. While other racing organizations have been proactive in the development of impact-absorbing vehicles, NASCAR has lagged behind. Safety experts say passenger cars can be more forgiving than NASCAR vehicles.

And, yet, Kenny Irwin's death was one too many.

Earnhardt's seat belt, which broke in the crash, was not installed to manufacturer's specifications. Earnhardt was not wearing a head-and-neck support. He was not wearing a fully enclosed helmet. He did not have a safety net to the right of his seat that might have prevented him from being whipped around so violently when hit by Schrader. NASCAR regulates engine specifications with remarkable precision, but its rule book is full of holes when it comes to routine safety features.

And yet Tony Roper's death was one too many.

NASCAR and its experts spent a tremendous amount of time explaining how Earnhardt's seat belt broke and how that factored into his death. They did not implicate the seat belt manufacturer, but they left the impression that the seat belt was as much to blame as anything else in the car.

Perhaps this was accurate, but it ignores a larger question:

What about Petty, Irwin and Roper?

Their seat belts did not break and yet they all suffered massive neck and head injuries. There are some fundamental problems with the vehicles or the walls or the drivers' safety equipment that go beyond a broken seat belt. And no one from NASCAR stepped forward to say this.

Ask yourself this question: Do you feel better today?

Did NASCAR tell you anything that makes you believe the next time will turn out differently? That the spouse, or child, or parent in the hospital corridor will cry tears of relief instead of anguish.

Helton insists NASCAR is moving ahead with safety tests. That to react impulsively would be wrong. That imprudent changes might cause greater problems.

The reality is that NASCAR has had more than a year to look into these deaths and the only tangible result is the introduction of the black box crash recorder that already was being used by other racing organizations.

What does it tell you that so many drivers have voluntarily begun wearing head-and-neck restraints? They have concerns and they are seeking help.

It would be nice if NASCAR was around to provide some leadership.

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