By JOANNE KORTH
© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 30, 2001
Busch series driver Randy LaJoie saw enough of the Humpy Bumper during a crash test session Tuesday at Lowe's Motor Speedway to know he wants one in the front end of his stock car.
"I don't care if NASCAR doesn't insist that we have it, but they shouldn't not let us have it," LaJoie said. "That's the first time I've ever seen a car slam into a wall like that and suffer as little damage as it did. I don't know what a casket costs, but whatever those (bumpers) cost has got to be cheaper."
According to test data, the energy-absorbent bumper reduces by at least 50 percent the G-forces that reach the driver in a front-end collision with the wall. It also increases the duration of the crash by about four times, which means the stop is less sudden.
Designed to address the rigidity of the front ends of stock cars, the bumper was put on a fast track after four NASCAR drivers -- Tony Roper, Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Dale Earnhardt -- died in a 10-month span of head injuries.
Lowe's Motor Speedway president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, for whom the bumper is named, sought the help of engineer Paul Lew, whose company specializes in the research and manufacture of products using composite materials. Computer and design experts worked 12-hour days, seven days a week to produce the bumper.
Now, it's up to NASCAR.
Winston Cup cars have about 2 feet of empty space between the nose and the engine block that crumples quickly, absorbing little energy. Because the engine is heavy and the chassis rigid, much of the force of a crash transfers to the driver.
The bumper seems to remedy that problem, but NASCAR traditionally has been slow to approve new equipment of any type for fear of "unintended consequences." Among the concerns with the Humpy Bumper is that minor contact drivers normally would drive through might become more substantial.
"It's up to NASCAR from here," Wheeler said. "They'll look at what we have and either say, 'We like it, go ahead and start manufacturing it,' or, 'We'd like for you to look at it further with some more tests.'
"Ideally, they'll like it and we can get it on the cars as soon as possible."
NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter said it is unlikely any changes will be made this season.
FREE FALLING: Dale Jarrett's sixth-place finish at Bristol on Saturday ended a streak of four consecutive races in which he failed to make the top 10. Since his victory at New Hampshire late last month, when Jarrett and Jeff Gordon were tied for the points lead, Jarrett has fallen 379 points behind.
TESTING, TESTING: Gordon and Mark Martin tested Monday at Kansas Motor Speedway, a 1.5-mile trioval that will host its first Winston Cup event on Sept. 30. Both remarked on how smooth the surface was and the lack of an outside racing groove.
"I know I'm going to do my passing on the inside," Martin said. "I'm not going to be out there where there isn't much of a groove worked in yet. ... It always takes a while to get enough rubber on the track to create another groove."
FRESH FACES: Racing Professionals and Conquest Racing teams will make their Indy Racing League debuts this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, fielding cars for rookies Jon Herb and Laurent Redon. Herb, who has made four IRL starts this season, owns Racing Professionals. Redon, from France, is a former Formula One test driver.
WORTHY INDUCTEES: Four men will be inducted into the Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame during a formal ceremony Saturday in Darlington, S.C.: Earnhardt, who won seven Winston Cup championships before his death in February; four-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt; NASCAR chairman Bill France; and Glen Wood, patriarch of the Wood Brothers stock car team.
CHALLENGE AT DARLINGTON: New Darlington Raceway president Andrew Gurtis, at 35, is most familiar with NASCAR's high-tech rise the past 15 years. He was vice president at Daytona International Speedway the past four years, working on sponsorships and marketing plans to maintain NASCAR's popularity.
Now, he's charged with bringing the sport's oldest -- and some would say most out-of-date -- layout into NASCAR's future starting with Sunday's Southern 500.
"He's one of the youngest, most talented people in this business," said Jim Hunter, Darlington's former president. "There's no doubt in my mind he can do this job."
And it will be a job, despite the nearly 20,000 seats and numerous improvements Hunter made during his nine years there.
Gurtis is confident that the "Lady in Black" is far from finished. He won't gut the tradition, but use it as his base.
"I think you have to visit a place like Darlington Raceway and that's why I'm comfortable with Darlington's future in the sport," Gurtis said. "There are some fantastic showplaces now. ... But the roots of the place will always be at a place like Darlington."
-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.