Originally created 02/22/01

Drivers' safety must be a priorty for NASCAR



MOORESVILLE, N.C. - NASCAR was working on safety issues before and after Adam Petty died 10 months ago. It was working on safety before and after Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper died in the past six months. And on Monday, the sanctioning body for stock car racing vowed to continue to work on safety after Dale Earnhardt died on the final lap of the Daytona 500.

Much like funerals and autopsy reports, the company line of safety being a work in progress is getting old. If racing doesn't have the kind of answers it needs to keep people from dying, it needs to find it.

The organization responsible for making rules for stock cars and pickup trucks has few opinions on rules for its drivers. NASCAR has a book of guidelines for the cars, but only suggestions for the men behind the wheel.

That needs to change.

The current rulebook doesn't require a fire suit or crash helmet. It suggests drivers use both, but NASCAR doesn't require either. At the same time, it has exact requirements for the size and shapes of fenders, the location of sponsor decals and the position of in-car television cameras.

Meanwhile, drivers die.

Petty, Irwin, Roper and Earnhardt all died the same way. Each hit the wall at a speed and precise angle that essentially crushed the base of their skulls. Sudden impacts, by nature, are traumatic since the energy of a moving car suddenly is concentrated to the most fragile part of the race car - the driver.

"We're always working on safety issues," NASCAR president Mike Helton said. "It's a work in progress all the time. We're not going to react just for the sake of reacting."

Sounds like lawyer talk. Make fire suits mandatory and NASCAR makes itself open to legal action if a driver burns to death. Require the use of the Head And Neck Support (HANS) system, and who's to blame for the next driver to die of a broken neck?

This we know for a fact: Doing nothing is costing lives.

"We went along forever and nobody hardly broke a fingernail," said driver Sterling Marlin, whose innocent tap on the final lap sent Earnhardt into his fatal spin. "All of a sudden, things are happening. Whether it's the HANS device or air bags in the car or something, we've got to figure out something to make it better."

NASCAR has an army of marketing and legal people. They negotiated the current television deal. NASCAR's cut of that contract is $280 million - more than enough money to hire some engineers to turn the sanctioning body's investment in safety into a workable reality.

According to NASCAR spokesman John Griffin, his organization has bought land in North Carolina and will build a competition department responsible for making the cars both safe and competitive. He insists a lot of that work will continue behind the scenes.

The Championship Auto Racing Teams series now requires the use of the HANS device at all oval races for IndyCars. Formula One mandates the HANS device for every race, and the American Speed Association will make the restraint system mandatory next year.

The Indy Racing League has sent several drivers to Jim Downing's shop in Atlanta to be fitted for the HANS device. NASCAR remains the only major sanctioning body in the world that has no opinion on the benefits of the device.

Seven drivers used a head and neck restraint system during the Daytona 500. Earnhardt was not one of them.

A day after the seven-time champion died, several drivers have placed orders with Downing. Rusty Wallace, Jeremy Mayfield, Johnny Benson, Ken Schrader, Bill Elliott, Buckshot Jones, Casey Atwood, John Andretti and Dave Blaney are all scheduled to be fitted with the collar that's designed to immobilize the head and neck during a crash.

Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip said he will test the HANS device in the next couple weeks.

"It's not a matter of if it's your time or not," Downing said. "It's a matter of physics."

Doctors who treated Earnhardt at the scene and at the hospital said they didn't think the HANS device could have saved the driver. The doctor who performed the autopsy said he wasn't sure.

That level of denial, Downing said, was "almost criminal."

Since it was developed in 1991, no driver wearing the device has suffered a head or neck injury during a crash. More important, nobody has ever been killed while wearing the collar.

Whether it would have saved Earnhardt is pure speculation. The only thing that's for certain is this: not wearing it was absolutely lethal.

The only hope coming from Earnhardt's death is a renewed interest among the drivers in taking the lead in safety issues, although it should be the job of NASCAR to be the leader in keeping its people alive.

Four deaths in 10 months proves something's wrong. It's time for NASCAR to fix it. Or find somebody that can.