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Friday, August 10
NASCAR has lacked in safety
By Jerry Bonkowski
ESPN.com

"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 Daytona.

    "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 ESPN.com.

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