TALLADEGA, Ala. - Bobby Labonte isn't taking any chances this week. He's bringing the HANS device and the Hutchens Device to the Talladega Superspeedway for Sunday's EA Sports 500.
Like most drivers, Labonte didn't need NASCAR's mandate that now requires the use of either head and neck restraint system, especially at Talladega. If there's going to be trouble at Talladega - and history suggests there will - he wants to be prepared.
"I'm covered as far as the head and neck issue," Labonte said. "I did the same thing for anthrax. I've got Cipro, and I got a shot. I don't take chances."
The sanctioning body responded to the rash of racing deaths Wednesday by requiring the immediate use of either restraint system. Forty-two of 43 drivers planned on wearing the safety device at Talladega all along, but the directive will make it unanimous. The lone holdout, Tony Stewart, suggested Wednesday he may fight the order because he doesn't feel comfortable wearing either system.
"Talladega is a tough place anyway because you know you've got a higher probability of being in a crash there than anywhere else," said Johnny Benson. "Mentally, it's the toughest place we race."
Without restrictions, the 2.66-mile tri-oval would be the fastest race track on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series circuit. Its 33-degree banking and four-lane-wide racing groove would be conducive for speeds of nearly 225 mph if it weren't for restrictions placed on the car's bodies and engines.
The flow of air and gasoline reduces speeds by about 25 mph. A collection of metal strips on the roof and trunk lid to create drag has cut another 15 mph. The result is a field of cars that are all under-powered to the point of being unable to get separation in traffic. The distance between the leader and the last-place car is often only a matter of a few yards, and that creates the real threat of a multi-car crash. One little mistake usually turns into a massive pileup.
NASCAR conducted a test with 19 teams at Talladega on Aug. 27. The purpose of the session was to find new ways to restrict speeds - which are to keep the cars from becoming airborne during an accident - while leaving enough power for cars to separate in smaller, more manageable packs of traffic.
The majority of drivers liked a rear spoiler at a 60-degree angle. It created enough drag to keep the speeds below the 190-mph barrier, and it made the cars a little tougher to drive which should help break the traffic into smaller groups.
"We all loved it," said Rusty Wallace. "All in all, everybody liked the way the 60-degree spoiler without the roof fin and the gurney flap on the rear spoiler performed versus all that. We liked the 60 and then (NASCAR) came back and said, 'We're not going to make any changes.' I've got to tell you everybody was floored."
At the season-opening Daytona 500, there was a 19-car crash late in the event. Then on the final lap, Dale Earnhardt was involved in a crash that left him dead on impact with the fourth turn wall.
His death, along with the deaths of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, Tony Roper and Blaise Alexander, all came in the last 17 months. All died of broken necks - injuries that may have avoided if the HANS device or the Hutchens device had been worn.
"Going from Martinsville (the smallest raceway on the circuit) to Talladega (the biggest) is a big adjustment, but there's just as much beating and banging going on at Talladega as there is at Martinsville," Labonte said. "The only difference is, you're going a whole lot faster and trouble tends to be really big at Talladega."
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