Originally created 05/29/03

Safety remains priority



CONCORD, N.C. - Last week, NASCAR ordered all race teams to attach a second tether to their cars' front wheels to keep them from flying into the grandstands during a crash, and it approved a filtering system to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

This week, the research and development center, which has been in charge of safety issues since the death of racing icon Dale Earnhardt in 2001, is looking adding safety equipment, including a roof flap and escape hatch. An extra roof flap would keep cars from becoming airborne during a wreck. The escape hatch would give drivers another, perhaps quicker, way to get out of a crippled car.

At the same time, work on as many as 20 other projects continues throughout the cavernous 64,000-square-foot center that opened near the Concord Regional Airport six months ago.

"With our research and development center, I think there is a need to let people know what we are doing rather than saying, 'We'll let you know when we get it done' - the answer we gave for so many years," center director Gary Nelson said.

In the past two years, Nelson's group has successfully pushed for the use of head-and-neck-restraint systems, new driver seats and data recorders that help describe what happens inside a car during a crash.

The central focus on safety shifted back to soft walls after Jerry Nadeau's crash into the first-turn wall at Richmond International Raceway on May 2. The driver's side door of Nadeau's Pontiac hit first, leaving the driver with head, lung, ribs and shoulder injuries.

Nadeau was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital at Charlotte this week. The study of every nut and bolt on his car - not just the safety equipment - will take months, Nelson said.

While the idea of cushioning the walls seems to be an easy solution to softening the impact, Nelson has been careful not to react too quickly.

Research at the safety center has revealed problems with soft-wall technology, particularly a phenomenon known as "pocketing." Pocketing is when a car embeds itself into the softer cushion rather than delivering a glancing blow. When a car's momentum is stopped, even for a split second, a greater percentage of the impact is transferred to the weakest point of the car - the driver.

The Steel and Foam Energy Reduction barrier already has been installed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After the 2002 Brickyard 400, SAFER developers admitted the cushions needed modifications before the Winston Cup Series returned this August.

Nelson doesn't talk a lot about the ongoing projects at the safety center.

"Typically, we don't like to talk about development projects as we work through them because they may or may not ever make it to the racetrack," he said.

At the same time, Nelson said most projects are disqualified during the center's research process.

"Finding out what doesn't work is just as important as finding out what works," Nelson said. "It's a two-way deal."

Some projects take very little time to make it into NASCAR's rule book. The second tether, for example, was mandated at the bigger speedways less than two weeks after one of Ryan Newman's wheels flew over the second-turn wall during a crash at Talladega, Ala., in April. Last week, the rule was extended to all tracks.

Other projects, however, take months, if not years. NASCAR has been looking into the effects of fumes inside the cockpit for a long time. Although Rick Mast's retirement after a bout with carbon monoxide poisoning brought the issue to light in January, the center had been working on its fresh air study for seven months before approving a catalyst filtering system inside the car.

"During the study, the experts concluded that the levels of carbon monoxide were not at an alarming level, but we wanted to ensure our drivers of the best possible environment to compete in," Nelson said. "The study was divided into three areas: the human side, car preparation and the component."

Nelson said physical condition and hydration play a critical role in the level of carbon monoxide that enters a driver's body. Teams were shown better ways to get fresh air into the car during construction and race setup. At the same time, the new $400 system has been shown to reduce carbon monoxide in the car by as much as 75 percent.

For now, the filtering system is merely recommended. Several cars are likely to be fitted with the catalyst system during Sunday's MBNA Armed Forces Family 400 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway.

Nelson's group has turned its attention toward the benefits of adding an extra roof flap and escape hatch.

The window opening is 17 inches tall, which is a tight squeeze for bigger drivers, especially when a quick exit is required.

"I think it's a good idea because of all the new seats and headrests we use; it's really hard to get out of these cars," driver Ricky Rudd said. "A lot of guys are using headrests that go over your shoulders and extend past their heads. I don't see how they can get around that if they had to get out of the car really fast."

An escape hatch is not a new idea at the safety center, but it wasn't until a pull-cord latch was developed that it became a pressing issue. Nelson said he expects the hatches to be ready by the end of the season.

"We want to be able to say to the teams, 'Here is what you need to do: Put this in the car and move on to the next project,"' Nelson said.

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net.