Safety measures are being tested, but there is more research to do before decisions are made about their use.
By JOANNE KORTH
© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 22, 2001
ATLANTA -- NASCAR does not plan to make any sudden or sweeping changes to its cars or safety equipment based on the findings of the investigation into Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash.
As usual, it will be patient.
"There's not a bulletin getting ready to go out this afternoon to change walls at racetracks or roll bars in race cars," NASCAR president Mike Helton said.
"But there was an effort that began this time last year, and that became very aggressive as we were given opportunities in a very tragic way, to understand things that we never understood before."
A team of independent experts concluded Earnhardt died of a basilar skull fracture caused by a blow to the back of the head. Among the contributing factors was a broken left lap belt.
Helton said NASCAR has commissioned a study of the occupant restraint system, which failed in Earnhardt's accident, by Dr. James Raddin, one of the key researchers in the investigation, and Dr. James Melvin, an independent safety consultant.
NASCAR continues to recommend but did not make mandatory the head-and-neck support devices that have proven effective in the prevention of head-whip action that caused basilar skull fractures in the deaths of Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin last summer. Because of complicating factors, it was not clear whether such a device would have helped Earnhardt survive.
In Sunday's race at Michigan, 41 of 43 drivers wore some type of head-and-neck safety device, including for the first time Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"We are pleased that a majority of Winston Cup drivers now use them," Helton said. "But we are not completely satisfied. We have intensified our efforts with drivers, equipment manufacturers and outside experts with the goal of helping all drivers find a system in which they feel comfortable and safer."
Starting next season, NASCAR will put data recorders in all its cars to provide more accurate information about the forces the chassis undergoes in an accident. Officials had refused to use the crash recorders -- similar to those used in airplanes -- because it feared teams would use the information to cheat.
Also for next season, NASCAR will hire a medical liaison to travel the circuit and assist local medical workers at tracks and is working on opening a research center in Conover, N.C., that would focus, among other things, on safety issues.
Helton was encouraged that the Earnhardt investigation produced a computer model of Winston Cup cars that can be used in the future to design safer cars and test track barriers, but no recommendations have been made.
Research will continue on several innovations intended to lessen the impact on a driver in crashes, including soft-wall technology, energy-absorbent front bumpers and cocoonlike composite seats. All will be thoroughly tested before NASCAR makes a decision on their use.
"It's my understanding those things are being studied," Raddin said. "But I think we need to be very cautious about how they're implemented so we don't try to fix the last accident and end up creating a number of other accidents."