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Local Drivers Will Try to Use Some Restraint

April 13, 2001|DARIN ESPER

"I don't think I'm going to crash, so I'm glad other people are there to think about it for me."

--Sean Woodside, 1999 NASCAR Winston West series champion

Although NASCAR officials announced Monday they hope to complete an accident construction review by August, several local drivers are increasing their efforts to protect themselves in the wake of the death of Dale Earnhardt, who died in a crash Feb. 18 at the Daytona 500 when he sustained a basilar skull fracture.

The Winston West series and the NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Tour compete primarily on tracks shorter than one mile, but each will make one stop at a super speedway.

The larger tracks have drivers considering the use of a head-and-neck-support device--known as the HANS device--or similar systems designed to prevent severe whipping head motions that cause skull fractures.

Winston Cup driver Ron Hornaday Jr., who began his career at Saugus Speedway, is using a product called the SEARS device, developed by former driver Bill Simpson, whose company manufactures much of the safety equipment used in racing.

The HANS device--made from the same materials used in bullet-proof vests--fits over the driver's shoulders and behind the driver's head, and is held in place by the five-point seat belts, while the SEARS tethers the helmet to the driver's fire suit.

Bill Sedgwick of Acton will use Simpson's product in the Pontiac Wide Track Grand Prix 200 on April 28 at California Speedway as he awaits his back-ordered HANS device.

"It makes sense to use it because last year I hit the wall pretty hard at Bakersfield and had sore neck muscles," Sedgwick said. "I don't think I'd want to hit much harder than that."

According to Woodside, who will use the SEARS device at Fontana, drivers tend to think about extra safety only before super speedway races.

"We've gotten into a bad habit of [saying], 'We're going to California [Speedway] so let's worry about the safety stuff,' and we really need to be worrying about the safety stuff everywhere we go," said Woodside, who sustained broken ribs in a 1998 crash at the one-half-mile Altamont Speedway while traveling approximately 70 mph.

The death of Michael Roberts on March 24 at the three-eighths mile Lebanon Speedway in Missouri while practicing for his first NASCAR Re/Max Challenge race validates Woodside's observation, as does the report on Earnhardt's death released Monday by medical doctor, biomedical and mechanical engineering consultant Barry Myers of Duke University.

"Frontal crashes which are angled to the right side of the vehicle are especially dangerous for the head and the neck of the driver," wrote Myers, who was appointed by a court-appointed Florida mediator to review Earnhardt's autopsy photos in response to a request made by the Orlando Sentinel and six other newspapers including The Times.

Roberts' death, which occurred at 80 mph in a car identical to Southwest Tour cars, was due to basilar skull fracture--as were the deaths last year of Winston Cup drivers Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin, and NASCAR Craftsman Truck series driver Tony Roper.

Southwest Tour driver Augie Vidovich Jr. has used a HANS device since the season-opener Feb. 4., and Brandon Miller ordered one after seeing Nick DeFazio wear one in a super late model race at Irwindale Speedway.

Upon being informed of Roberts' death, series points leader M.K. Kanke of Frazier Park said he will test with DeFazio's HANS device today, with hopes of using it when the series stops at Irwindale April 21.

Featherlite and Winston West driver Craig Raudman of Bakersfield has first-hand knowledge of crash dynamics as a driver and a chassis-builder. He was hospitalized four days and sat out two months after sustaining serious injuries when he hit the wall last year in the Winston West race at California Speedway.

Raudman said one contributing factor to the recent string of fatalities is that chassis are being built stiffer to make the cars handle better, but there is less of an energy-absorbing front.

"The cars I drive and build have a pretty good crush zone in the front," Raudman said. "That's something NASCAR knows about that hasn't been talked about in the press."

Raudman said he will consider wearing some sort of head and neck support when he races on super speedways.

Once the drivers are on the track, the issue of protection will again be placed on the back-burner.

"I think it's an 'out of sight, out of mind deal,' especially when you have to go race," Woodside said.

Hopefully, the preventive measures taken off the track can keep it out-of-sight and out-of-mind on the track.

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