Bobby Labonte's family celebrated his victory following last Sunday's Southern 500 in Victory Lane, knowing they could have just as easily been planning for his funeral.
Two days earlier, Labonte's throttle hung wide open, forcing his car into one of the concrete walls at the Darlington Raceway. He managed to walk away from the crash, knowing that at another time and another place, he could have died.
"I can honestly say that if this had happened in New Hampshire, I don't believe it would been as good," Labonte said. "The car took a better blow here than it would have there, if the same circumstances had happened."
A mixture of stuck throttles and perceived indifference by officials at the New Hampshire International Speedway has many drivers stopping a half-step short of a threatened boycott when the NASCAR Winston Cup Series makes its second stop at the 1.058-mile oval on Sept. 17.
Two drivers - Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin - have died in separate accidents in the third turn at New Hampshire. Both accidents are believed to be the result of a stuck throttle, but the seriousness of the crashes was amplified by the speedway's configuration: sharp 90-degree turns with slight 12-degree banking.
If a driver has trouble approaching one of the corners at the end of the long straightaways, he has less than a second to make all the necessary maneuvers to avoid slamming at full speed into the wall. Both Petty and Irwin, whose crashes happened a month apart from each other, died at the same spot on the raceway.
Since Irwin died July 7, the majority of the stock car community has asked NASCAR to use its authority to have "soft walls" constructed in the first and third turns at New Hampshire. The sanctioning body, however, not only has stayed out of the dispute, it stands behind track owner Bob Bahre's contention the track is safe.
"We are really looking for something to happen," said driver Rusty Wallace. "I think that almost every driver in this garage area will be totally blown away."
"Soft walls" is a vinyl-covered Styrofoam barrier that's used to keep large ships from slamming into docks while they're in port. The Styrofoam walls were successfully tested at the Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C., a week ago, and that raceway is considering having them installed in their trouble spots -- the second and fourth turns -- in time for the UAW-GM 500 on Oct. 8.
"It's not a track design issue," said Mike Helton, NASCAR's chief operating officer. "All the elements in regards to safety are an on-going work in progress. We have a lot of activity -- working on a lot of things -- from the cars to the elements on the track. It's really a process of eliminating things that don't work and trying to find the one or two that makes sense to carry on the progress of research."
Since Irwin's accident, NASCAR has mandated kill switches on the steering wheel and modifications to the throttle linkage. That was little consolation to Labonte, who said the modifications didn't stop his car from hitting the third turn at Darlington at full speed. He also said a driver doesn't have enough time to think about, much less depress, the kill switch on the steering wheel.
The drivers aren't buying any more excuses. They don't understand why any raceway would chose to ignore a situation that's already claimed two lives.
"If they're putting an effort into it and they haven't found a reasonable solution, then that's reasonable," said driver Jeff Burton. "If they haven't put any effort into it and that's why there's no solution, that's not acceptable."
One problem facing race teams as they attempt to get racetracks to assume a share of the responsibility is the fact that the same family that owns NASCAR, the Frances, also owns 11 of the raceways currently on the Winston Cup Series schedule. For the sanctioning body to take a lead on such a difficult issue means the very same people have to first admit they accept a certain level of liability.
"Hey, all we can do is talk about it," driver Dale Jarrett said. "The track has a responsibility. I can't say it is NASCAR's responsibility. They make enough money up there to put up a barrier.
"(The barrier) is not anything that is going to create problems. The only time you're up there (in the second turn at New Hampshire) is if you're in trouble. And if you're in trouble, why not have something to help out? If there is not something there when we show up on Thursday or Friday, I'm going to be very disappointed."
Burton's car owner, Jack Roush, has developed a mechanism that automatically turns off the engine when a measured amount of pressure is applied to the brake pedal. Drivers up and down pit road have applauded Roush's maverick attitude to put some issues of safety in the hands who know it best.
NASCAR will allow teams to use the shut-off device on a voluntary basis.
"Obviously, something when you initially slam on the brakes that would shut the engine off, that's what they're working on, and that's the answer," said driver Jeff Gordon. "It's just how do you do it and how do you make it where it works for everybody.
"I don't know if it will be in place by then, but if New Hampshire doesn't do something to the racetrack - whether it works or not - I think they're going to get a lot of backlash. Let's say it's human error or if it's mechanical error: If it happens at that racetrack, it can be fatal. Why not put some extra protection out there when it's a racetrack that all of us agree we want something to be on the walls that can absorb some of the impact?"
Said Labonte, "It would be encouraging for us if we have some type of knowledge that if it (another stuck throttle) did happen, we would have a little better chance of surviving. That (shut-off) device goes on our race car as soon as it's out. NASCAR is not going to stop us. After that, there is not a great answer."
Chevrolet Monte Carlo 400
Richmond (Va.) International Raceway
Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Television -- ESPN; Radio -- Motor Racing Network
.75-mile, D-shaped oval
What it takes to win:
The D-shaped layout makes Richmond one of the most-competitive raceways on the circuit. The track has all the charm and close-quarter racing of a short track, yet the banking and configuration makes it as competitive as a superspeedway. Cars can race side-by-side, but the quickest way around is on the bottom groove. The car that can maneuver through the second turn -- the end of the long, arcing front stretch -- to set up the sprint down the backstretch will have the advantage.
Morris News Service pick:
Other drivers to watch:
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Burton, Johnny Benson, Bobby Labonte
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