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Friday, August 10
NASCAR has lacked in safety
By Jerry Bonkowski
"A rolling birdcage with sheet metal and decals."
That's how a mechanic I used to take my personal car to for service -- and
obviously not a fan of NASCAR racing -- once jokingly described the makeup of
the typical Winston Cup chassis.
"All it's made up of is basically bent pipe and sheet metal. Where's the
safety that's supposed to be built in?" he added.
I'm reminded of that conversation in light of Friday's report in the Orlando
Sentinel that the lack of proper safety devices, in addition to the high
whip-like forces of gravity upon his head and body, will be the primary
causes cited when NASCAR releases its final report and investigation into the
death of Dale Earnhardt later this month.
Quoting "reliable sources" close to the investigation, the Sentinel story
cites flaws in not only available safety equipment that is not mandated by
NASCAR, but also in the design of today's so-called "stock cars."
Surprise! Anyone who understands physics and mechanics could have told you
the same thing. While they may be high-tech wonders when it comes to
producing high levels of horsepower from their engine power plants, Winston
Cup cars are technological dinosaurs when it comes to the overall makeup and
design of the chassis that surrounds each car.
By contrast, regular passenger cars on the road today are much more advanced
in terms of technology, design and safety equipment designed to protect a
driver and his or her passengers.
Where do you find such safety items as crumple zones, front and side air
bags, and energy-absorbing bumpers? Not in Winston Cup, that's for sure.
And isn't it ironic that for all the technological testing and innovation
when it comes to parts that are used on Cup cars, with the hope that some day
they can be used to further enhance safety in passenger cars, that NASCAR
racing cars are actually so much weaker in safety precautions than their mass
production passenger vehicle counterparts?
Having covered motorsports for the last 15 years, I've been exposed to all
that is good and bad, particularly mechanically and safety-wise, in NASCAR,
NHRA drag racing, as well as the most technologically and safe motorized
vehicles around in both CART/IRL and Formula One competition.
As much as it pains me to say it, NASCAR may be the most popular game in town
when it comes to putting fans in the stands, but it is embarrassingly light
years behind its smaller motorized counterparts when it comes to keeping
drivers safe in their own seats.
Look at the facts:
NASCAR loses four drivers within a nine-month period in tragic crashes.
The primary reason: poor or limited safety equipment or failure to utilize
existing equipment already on the market such as the HANS device, etc.
NHRA Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars routinely hit speeds in excess of
325 mph, yet also on occasion flip over and crash, with most drivers shaken
yet able to walk away from their twisted wrecks the majority of the time.
Ask 10-time Funny Car champion John Force, who has been involved in more wrecks
and fires in his career than most of his challengers combined. Force swears
by the stringent safety rules and required equipment that NHRA mandates. "If
NHRA wasn't so picky about safety, and that's a good picky, I probably
wouldn't be here today," Force once told me.
CART and Formula One are the epitome of safety in action to the ultimate
level in motorsports competition. Those vehicles are designed not only to
attain speeds in excess of 200 mph, but also to break apart in crashes. The
reason is simple: the driver is encased in a very rigid compartment -- a
cocoon-like edifice -- that is designed to offer utmost protection in the
event of a crash.
That's why the rest of the car is designed to break away
from the driver's compartment in a crash, so that none of the crumpled
material is lethally pushed back into the driver.
Yet despite all that, NASCAR continues to plod along year after year with its
rolling birdcages. The technology is there to incorporate things like
energy-absorbing crumple zones in the front end and sides of Cup cars. The
technology is there to incorporate things like front and side air bags to
help restrain a driver in the event of a high speed crash. HANS devices have
proven themselves to be life-savers.
And what does NASCAR do in light of all that? Virtually nothing. NASCAR
officials say the use of items such as the HANS device are up to driver
preference, that it can't or won't mandate it as a required safety device
because some drivers feel too encased or too restricted in their movements
behind the wheel.
That, despite the fact that more than three-fourths of all
Cup drivers have taken to wearing either the HANS or the similar Hutchens
(similar to the HANS, but less restricting in side-to-side movement of the
head) devices since Earnhardt's death, according to the Sentinel.
So? Do you mean to tell me Bill France Jr., Mike Helton, Winston Cup series
director Gary Nelson and other NASCAR officials are so thin-skinned that they
would rather use a weak excuse of "driver preference" to NOT mandate safety
equipment like the HANS device, than to have the guts to say "tough, drivers,
wear it or you don't race. It's that simple."
I had the opportunity to have a long talk with Mike Skinner on Thursday.
Fortunately, Skinner is back on the road to health after what he called the
worst crash of his career more than a month ago in Joliet, Ill., and plans to
return to racing next week in Brooklyn, Mich. In his spectacular and fiery
crash at Joliet, Skinner not only was knocked unconscious, he suffered a
fractured ankle, torn knee ligaments and a couple of broken ribs.
But had it not been for the HANS device protecting his neck and upper body
and with a little help from God, Skinner felt his crash was so severe that he
could easily have become NASCAR's fifth casualty in the last 15 months.
"It was probably the hardest I've ever hit," Skinner said. His right front
tire was cut by some type of debris or obstruction, sending him head-on into
the Turn 2 wall at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, in similar fashion to
the way Earnhardt lost his life after crashing into the Turn 4 wall at
"Thank God the HANS device and the safety things we have in our car saved
us," Skinner said. "I don't think any human being could take a hit like I
took at (Joliet) without the safety stuff like the HANS device of the
Hutchens device, and live through it and go back racing four weeks later."
But while equipment such as the HANS and Hutchens devices are big steps,
NASCAR still does not require their usage.
Which leads to perhaps the most important question of all: What has NASCAR
learned from its four-month investigation, reportedly the most in-depth query
in its 52-year history?
While it may be too late to help drivers like Earnhardt, Adam Petty, Kenny
Irwin and Tony Roper, the Sentinel said NASCAR's much-anticipated report has
already spurred action on several fronts, including among car manufacturers,
to refine the design of current race cars to make them more tolerant to
impact, ultimately providing more safety to the drivers. Those improvements
include energy-absorbent bumpers and aluminum-foam "crush box" front ends.
The Sentinel also said efforts have begun on constructing cocoon-like driver
compartments -- in much the same fashion as those found in open wheel racing
-- that will further protect drivers.
Those are all promising starts. But there is still so much more work and
research to be done. And NASCAR still hasn't tipped its hand on its
intentions about requiring energy-absorbing walls at series racetracks
(although the cost may be too prohibitive for many venues), or the use of
data recorders similar to the "black box" found on most large aircraft and
trains to study the pre- and post-effects of individual crashes, particularly
those that are the most serious.
NASCAR has also been prodded, but has yet to act, on forming a specialized
traveling medical team similar to that seen in CART, where medical experts
such as Dr. Steve Olvey and Dr. Terry Trammell split attending every race to
make sure that specialists trained in tending to the unique injuries inherent
in racing are quickly available to render immediate specialized assistance,
rather than leaving a driver's fate in the hands of general hospital
emergency wards or trauma centers that are normally not equipped or trained
in the nuances of treating racing crash victims.
While we all anxiously await NASCAR's release of the Earnhardt crash
investigation on Aug. 21, we can only hope that the normally obstinate,
stubborn, slow-to-change officials at the top of the NASCAR hierarchy will
finally realize once and for all the safety crisis that has arisen in Winston
Cup racing, and will deal with it in a much quicker manner than some
slow-talking, slower-acting backwoods rubes.
If future safety mandates and requirements can save even one life, and damn
to those detractors who complain about "personal preference" or "lack of
comfort," those improvements will more than have paid off the highest
dividend of all.
Veteran motorsports writer Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR Winston Cup for
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