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Outside the Lines: NASCAR Safety: The Danger Dilemma

Here's the transcript from Show 34 of Weekly Outside the Lines - NASCAR Safety: The Danger Dilemma.

BROADCAST OF SUNDAY, November 19, 2000
Anchor- Bob Ley
Guests -Ernie Irvan, retired NASCAR driver;
Robin Miller,motor sports editor, Indianapolis Star
David Poole,reporter, Charlotte Observer
Reported by - Dave Revsine
Coordinating producer- Jonathan Ebinger

Outside The Lines - Safety Riding Alongside Record Speeds; Is There More NASCAR Can Do?

Bob Ley, host- We begin this morning with some facts. First, everyone in racing in each series at every level is concerned about the safety of drivers and spectators. To suggest otherwise would be neither fair nor correct.

And one other fact. After today's event in Atlanta, ESPN's rights holding relationship with NASCAR Winston Cup will end after 20 years and 262 races.

Having said that, this also is true about NASCAR. It enjoys legendary fan loyalty and in a business sense is the envy of the sports industry. While other leagues confront flattening attendance and shrinking television ratings, NASCAR's growth since the early '90s has been in continual full throttle.

There is in the sport a delicate balance between the rules of racing and an exciting, attractive product. How many horsepower, how many lead changes, and yes, is it as safe as it can be? Because this sport is unique in the most profound sense, nowhere but in motor sports must everyone owners, drivers, fans and media deal with the specter of serious injury and death.

In that regard, this was not a good year for NASCAR. Dave Revsine examines the question of safety in a sport where it seems the sky is the limit.

Unidentified male- Gentlemen, start your engines.

Unidentified female- My baby is three.

Dave Revsine, ESPN correspondent- The business juggernaut that is NASCAR has been on a roll this year. Its new TV deal with Fox, NBC, FX, and TBS is worth $2.4 billion. There's also a new Internet package from Turner Sports, a package valued at $100 million. Finding a new way to reach NASCAR's loyal and expanding fan base.

Mike Helton, NASCAR Senior Vice President- Certainly the economics of the package is what people look at. That's the first thing you see. And I think that speaks highly of the product that NASCAR's got and complements it.

Dale Jarrett, Driver Number 88- To be quite honest, we've worked hard to get ourselves in this position.

Scott Pruett, Driver Number 32- This is what we do for a living. We drive race cars. The popularity of it is exciting for us.

Darrell Waltrip, Driver Number 66- What are we doing different now than we did 20 years ago? I mean, the last time I looked, they line them up out here on Sunday. They come around. They drop the green flag. They have a little accident in between, then they drop the checkered flag, and we go home.

Now that's the way it was when I started. And that ain't changed.

So what's changed? And it's just the perception of the sport. It's a much better show now because we're much better showmen now.

Revsine- The element of danger has always been a part of that show.

Jeff Burton, Driver Number 99- This is not a 100 percent safe sport. This is a dangerous sport. It may be the most dangerous sport.

Unidentified male- We've got trouble. This is going to hurt.

Revsine- That danger was evident to all this season. A year of unprecedented financial windfalls has also been one of unprecedented tragedy with three drivers losing their lives. NASCAR trucks racer Tony Roper died in Ft. Worth last month, this after Winston Cup driver Kenny Irwin and Busch Series racer Adam Petty, the grandson of the legendary Richard Petty, perished earlier in the year in New Hampshire.

Waltrip- It's the grim reality. I mean, that's about all. It's I can't explain it. I'm a man of many words, and I can't explain it. I can't explain how I can see somebody get killed in a race car and yet I can get back in a race car and go do what he was doing.

I'm a family man. I've got a wife, two kids. I'm 53 years old. I darn sure don't want to get killed in a race car. Yet I see it happen. And it could happen to me. A throttle could stick on my car just as easy it can on someone else's.

David Poole, "Charlotte Observer"- Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin hit the wall at New Hampshire. Couldn't have been more than 15 feet from the same spot. When it happens twice in the exact same spot within three months of each other, you have to start asking yourself, "Are we doing anything to make this happen? And can we do anything to prevent it from happening again?"

Revsine- The question is who should take the leadership role in preventing future tragedies, drivers, the tracks, or perhaps NASCAR itself? Scott Pruett has a unique perspective. After nine years in the open cockpit of a cart race car, he switched over to the Winston Cup Series this season.

(on camera)- Do you think that NASCAR does all it can to protect drivers?

Pruett- No I don't. But I say that from the standpoint that I'm coming from a series where they're very educated, and we've had some very ferocious crashes where you've had to be educated as a series.

Revsine- The Cart Series, where Pruett used to race, and the other domestic open wheel series, the IRL, approach safety differently than NASCAR. Both of the open wheel circuits have formal safety committees. NASCAR does not.

Cart and the IRL also have their own traveling safety teams of firefighters and paramedics who deal with on-track incidents. NASCAR leaves the hiring of emergency personnel in the hands of the individual tracks.

Waltrip- We need to learn from other sports. And you take Formula One. They send a driver, a safety committee person, someone from the sanctioning body, they send four or five guys to a race track. And they look at the track. And they say, "OK, we want a chicane (ph) here. We want a barrier here. We don't like the way the pit road entrance is. And we will not race here until you fix it."

Done deal. It's fixed.

We go somewhere, and we complain a little bit. And they say, "Shut up and drive."

Revsine- Could NASCAR you think do more on the safety issue? I mean, for instance, Cart has a safety committee. Why is there not a NASCAR safety committee?

Helton- Well, we have a safety committee. It's made up of about 2,000 members out here in the garage area every weekend from crew chiefs to car owners to engine builders to drivers.

Revsine- Here at the Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, track president "Humpy" Wheeler took matters into his own hands, reaching into the track's wallet to install so-called soft wall technology on the inside walls before the race here on October 8.

Pruett- Now if you look at soft walls, some of the materials that can be used, it could actually grab the car and generate instead of down the track right into the wall. So you could actually be opening up a whole new can of worms.

Revsine- And that in a nutshell is the dilemma. Every proposed solution, whether it be the soft walls, restricter plates that slow the cars down, or a head and neck support system seemingly comes with its own set of pitfalls.

Poole- But the problem is that there is no easy answer. When you've got 43 cars going 160 miles an hour within a few feet of each other, bad things happen. You have to do everything you can to prevent those things from being as bad as they were for Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty and Tony Roper.

Wheeler- You don't want to de-fang the tiger to where he's not giving people the thrill, OK? But you don't want the tiger biting anybody either. So where do you put the tiger? You put the tiger in a cage, let people watch him. But you won't make the catch wide enough so he'll stick his head in there and bite somebody's hand off.

Poole- I've often told people that I don't think race fans come to the track to see guys crash and get hurt.

Unidentified male- Jared (ph) on the outside.

Unidentified male- Oh, trouble. Run in the wall hard, shredder in the wall hard.

Poole- They come to the track to see guys crash, jump out of the car, wave, and walk away.

Unidentified male- He is one tough customer.

Unidentified male- Yeah, he can play it to the crowds here.

Poole- They don't want to see drivers die. They want to see drivers defy death. That's the appeal.

Revsine- The new TV and Internet deals, the massive crowds, and the ubiquitous merchandise and all testaments to one fact. NASCAR fans simply can't get enough of the product. After one of the most tragic years in recent memory, though, the challenge going forward is to maintain that excitement without the loss of lives.

For Outside The Lines, I'm Dave Revsine.

Ley- And when we continue, I'll talk with Ernie Irvan, who has known both the exhilaration of victory lane and the trauma of very serious crashes. And also, two journalists with differing views on NASCAR's safety policies.

Ley- To discuss NASCAR's safety, we welcome Ernie Irvan, who retired last season after 13 years on the Winston Cup Circuit. He had 15 career victories and survived a crash six years ago at which time he was given a 10 percent chance of survival. Ernie Irvan is joining us from Atlanta this morning.

David Poole covers auto racing for the "Charlotte Observer." And he also joins us from Atlanta.

Robin Miller is motor sports editor for the "Indianapolis Star" and the open wheel racing analyst for ESPN's "RPM Tonight." He is in Indianapolis. We should note that we requested a representative from NASCAR for our discussion, and they did decline.

Ernie, let me begin with you. Out of the sport now for a year, watching what has been a very tragic season, are you of the mind that there is more that can be done by NASCAR that is not being done?

Ernie Irvan, Former NASCAR driver- Well, I mean, I think we all speculate that there is more that could be done. But I think that where there's an action there's a reaction. So every time that NASCAR makes a decision to change a spoiler or change something on the race cars to make it safer, there's 40 or 50 other teams that have to put those effects into their race cars. So again, you've got to make it where you do rash decisions and make it where it's not just a bunch of confusion.

Ley- Even in a year when you've had three fatalities, that delicate balance still is foremost in people's minds?

Irvan- Well, there's no doubt. I mean, I think that right now on Loudon, New Hampshire, that is just -- two of the wrecks have happened and the deaths have happened at Loudon, New Hampshire. Bob Baer (ph) does everything in the world to make it as safe a race track as he can. But the thing is, again, Humpy Wheeler has took in his own hands and make it where you know, test soft walls.

Ley- He tried them on the wall there in the track. Let me just bring in Robin for a second.

Robin, you cover open wheel racing as well. Can you make a comparison among the various classes of racing and where you think NASCAR stands?

Robin Miller, ESPN analyst- Well, Bob, here's what you've got to look at. In the earlier soundbite, you talk about speed kills and all this. The two deaths this year in NASCAR with Adam and with Kenny Irwin were blunt force trauma going 135, 140 miles an hour. It wasn't the speed that killed them, it's the quick stop.

So what's happened in auto racing in open wheel? They've tried to develop some things. The car dissipates the energy. It blows up.

Now obviously they have two different forms of cars here, an open wheel car and a NASCAR. It's a little tougher for NASCAR. But there's no crushable material. Why is the driver sitting right next to the window? Put the driver in the middle of the seat.

There's a device called the Hahn's Device. Dr. Robert Hubbard (ph) and Jim Downy (ph), who's a former Inso (ph) racer put it together that allows the driver's head to move with his body when he hits a sudden stop. And Ernie knows all about sudden stops because it happened to him in Michigan.

This is the kind of thing Cart and the IRL are going to make mandatory next year. You're going to have a Hahn's Device on all the oval tracks in a Cart race. Well, Brett Bodine (ph) is the only guy right now in NASCAR wearing one. And I would think that guys there was a story going around that Kyle Petty tried to wear this a few years ago and a couple of veteran drivers made fun of him for being a sissy.

Well, the problem is perception. Who cares what you're wearing? You've got to try and save your neck. And the best thing you can do is take advantage of all the things that are out there. And I think that's the one thing that the IRL and Cart have done that NASCAR kind of puts their head in the sand about.

Ley- Well, David, what's the bigger issue then, driver macho or NASCAR's reluctance to adopt some new measures?

Poole- I think NASCAR is more like a battleship. They're very reluctant to make big changes.

And I think a lot of what goes on in NASCAR is these drivers are very independent minded. Dale Earnhardt (ph) flat refuses to wear a closed-face helmet, not out of any sense of macho. He doesn't believe it's as safe as an open face helmet.

He may be right. He may be wrong. I'm not a doctor. Neither is he. But he feels more comfortable with an open face helmet. It's hard for me to blame NASCAR for not requiring that Dale Earnhart wear a helmet that he doesn't feel safe in.

Ley- Ernie, did you make any different decisions after your near-fatal crash in 1994?

Irvan- Well, I mean, there was no doubt that there was I mean, I shouldn't have got out of bed that morning. That would have been the easy decision.

Ley- But as far as being in the race, being in the cockpit, wearing a device or driving differently? Did you make different decisions in the cockpit?

Irvan- I can't really say that I did. I mean, I know that obviously the Hahn's Device, we looked at that. But the problem is the amount of movement I would need in the race that I felt comfortable with. And I didn't feel comfortable with trying to do it with a Hahn's Device.

So again, that is something that obviously I wish I would have had it now. But again, that is something that I chose not to do because I felt like I would be restraining myself too much.

Ley- What about NASCAR, David, in terms of the way they test safety? They test soft walls. They say they've been testing it in secret for three or four years. When there is data from a track crash, they share it with the teams involved, the teams they feel need it. Are they open enough with this information?

Poole- No, NASCAR is not open enough with anything. I think that's one of the areas, that's where they could really do a much better job. And I believe very strongly that one thing they should do as soon as next year is have a black box, a data collection device, in the race cars so that at the end of a major crash they have some hard data that they can go back, analyze, and share with the teams that may help them develop safety devices over the future.

And that's been the history of NASCAR is that they have done a very good job of developing devices and safety measures after something has happened that shows the need for it. They've developed inner fuel the inner liner for the fuel cell. They've developed the inner liners for the tires, loose flats (ph).

Ley- You're saying they're not being proactive enough though.

Poole- Exactly. I'm saying that they need to get out ahead of that instead of waiting to react, which has been their history.

Ley- OK, we'll pick up at that point. And we'll be back with Ernie Irvan, David Poole, and Robin Miller looking at NASCAR and safety on the day of the final race of the Winston Cup campaign as we continue Outside The Lines.

Ley- And we continue with Ernie Irvan, David Poole, and Robin Miller.

Last year, Ernie, in Dover, Delaware, you had a little fire problem, looked around for the safety crew. They were taking a lunch break during the practice session. Your pit crew had to put out the fire, which raises the whole question of the volunteer safety crews. Do you feel that NASCAR should make an immediate move towards putting professionals that travel with the circuit?

Irvan- Well, there's a couple of different answers on that. You know, right now NASCAR has got a sheet that they say that this is what you have to have to have a race. Well, that's good because if you have a traveling safety crew, what happens if nobody gets hurt for two years, nobody has a trauma?

Well, then that trauma crew hasn't done anything for two years. They haven't really practiced their deal. Well, if you have it where you have the people that are doing it every day, then they stay up on their profession.

Ley- Robin, what do you think of that argument?

Miller- I think that's a horrible argument because how can somebody with all their finances and all the depth of talent that NASCAR has not have a medical doctor, a surgeon, a safety crew that goes to every race who's familiar with how to get a driver out of the car, who's familiar with how to make sure maybe what special drivers need? I mean, it's a no brainer. And Cart and the IRL are miles ahead of NASCAR in that regard.

Ley- David, the drivers in NASCAR really don't have an organization. They're not organized as a group. They have very little political power as a group.

Poole- Well, yeah, I think they have more power than a lot of people think they do. I think they have a lot of influence on how the sport is run.

But to go to a point that Robin made, I think the answer somewhere is in between what Robin and Ernie say. I think that the real answer would be for NASCAR to have a group that is the core of its safety group, that is professional, that is run by NASCAR, and then supplement that with local help because to me both of those are very strong points.

Ley- But, Ernie, you crashed back in Brooklyn, Michigan, back in 1994, at Penske (ph) Track that has open wheel racing. There was a helicopter there. There was professional medical assistance that may not have been at other tracks. Is it fair to say if you crashed at another track you may not have made it?

Irvan- Well, that is fair to say. But the thing is right now any NASCAR race has a helicopter. Present. Any time a race car is on the race track, there is a helicopter present. That is a stipulation that NASCAR makes sure that that happens.

Now, again, it just so happened that it was at Michigan. And that was good because Michigan actually had the criteria that it needed to save my life. They've made all the right decisions.

And again, that doesn't mean Loudon, New Hampshire didn't have the right people. But the thing is it so happened it was a different wreck. And they were going slower, so there was no reason why you would think that they would die. But it just so happened to be that.

Ley- Robin?

Miller- Well, there's one thing you've got to remember, Bob. There's a guy named Brock Walker (ph) who has been building safety seats. He's revolutionized the seat industry in open wheel racing. He's saved a lot of guys' lives.

I've seen 230-mile-an-hour crashes for the last four years. The guys get up and walk away because they're in this little cocoon. Scott Pruett has this guy build him a seat. NASCAR won't use it. No composite seats. They're only using aluminum because they've got their head in the sand about new technology.

This guy works with Nassau (ph) and the U.S. Army. NASCAR has got to open their eyes up and go with the flow and say, "OK, we need to be educated on this. How do we do it?"

Because lots of drivers are going to hit the wall. It breaks their scapula right away. And there's just all kinds of ways to help drivers survive.

Maybe you've got to do what Cart and the IRL did. Maybe you've got to make things mandatory to help the drivers help themselves.

Ley- I've got...

Irvan- But I...

Ley- ... go ahead, Ernie.

Irvan- ... But I'm a little bit wrong with that because right now with NASCAR and Indy cars, comparing them together, Indy cars are about a 1,200-pound car maybe and goes really fast. But when you hit the wall, you only have 1,200 pounds hitting the wall. A NASCAR car is 3,400 pounds. And the G forces that it creates is a lot. So right now, that is an unfair comparison.

Ley- Ernie, let me ask you just for a quick answer. We're short on time. You've got a young son Jared (ph). You've had three serious head injuries. There's so much blood in NASCAR, families racing, would you let your young son, would you encourage him to follow in your footsteps?

Irvan- I want him to do whatever he chooses to do. And that's what I chose to do. That's the reason I retired because I want to make sure that I am here for my family.

Ley- Gentlemen, thank you very much. Ernie, it's good to see you doing well.

Irvan- Thanks.

Ley- Thanks to Ernie Irvan, David Poole, and to Robin Miller on OUTSIDE THE LINES. Next, news of an upcoming online chat with Ernie and feedback on hip-hop and the NBA. Be right back.

Ley- Allen Iverson's rap lyrics sparked last week's look at hip-hop and the NBA. And among our many e-mails, these observations.

From Abilene, Kansas- "NBA basketball fans represent all ages and ethnicities. Hip-hop may be the music of the moment. But many fans dislike its content and the lifestyle it represents. If players record CDs containing foul language or film commercials promoting sex and violence instead of basketball, the majority of fans will be turned off. I love the sport. But I won't watch the games, buy the shoes, or support the NBA in any way if the players behave more like gangsters than athletes."

From an Albany viewer- "I think that the NBA fears that there's a new generation of players who represent the rough, rugged, raw, and real dynamics of hip-hop culture and rap music. I think if the NBA is truly concerned about its image, there should be a serious analysis of its infrastructure in mentoring players about the realities of life as a pro athlete. A number of players have loosely structured or nonexistent support systems that are critical to the success and/or failure of that athlete's performance in the NBA."

Those opinions online at The keyword off our home page is otlweekly. We've got complete transcripts, streaming video of all Sunday morning OUTSIDE THE LINES programs, and a place to offer your e-mail feedback, comments, and criticisms. Our e-mail address as always,

And we invite you to log on tomorrow afternoon at 1-00 Eastern. Ernie Irvan will be with us at for an online chat covering a range of issues, including what we've talked about this morning. Ernie Irvan at 1-00 p.m. Eastern tomorrow, 10-00 a.m. Pacific for an online chat at

Ley- A reminder, we'll be re-airing over on ESPN2 at 1-00 p.m. Eastern, 10-00 a.m. Pacific. ESPN's coverage of the Atlanta NASCAR race begins at 12-40 Eastern time after countdown.

Chris Berman and the gang in 60 minutes. This morning, Joe Gibbs about the Super Bowl and winning also a Winston Cup championship. "SportsCenter" in 30 minutes. Have a great Thanksgiving.

Now to the ESPN Zone in Times Square for "The Sports Reporters."

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 ESPN's Bob Ley looks at the escalating danger involved in NASCAR.
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