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AUTO RACING

Aftershocks

Amid The Controversy Surrounding The Cause and Effect of His Death in a Crash at The Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Looms as large as Ever

Helton Says NASCAR Cares About Safety, but He Won't Say What It's Doing About It

April 26, 2001|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Amid the national outpouring of grief, Dale Earnhardt's death nine weeks ago triggered considerable soul searching and prompts a fundamental question about stock car racing:

Is the exorbitant price of this product necessary?

Did Earnhardt need to die in a 180-mph crash nine months after Adam Petty, 19; seven months after Kenny Irwin, 30; four months after Tony Roper, 35? NASCAR drivers all, and all killed in the same way.

At first glance, the answer is unequivocally yes. The economics are basic. The market exacts what it can bear, whether it's $1.70 a gallon for unleaded to get to work or the lives of drivers to get through the weekend.

And the folks who fuel NASCAR, those who buy tickets to races and turn their TVs to the drone of engines, have not had their fill. Without the danger that too often results in death, the thrill is gone.

So, it's business as usual. The Napa Auto Parts 500 will be run Sunday at California Speedway, barely two months after the Daytona 500, which claimed Earnhardt's life. Since that day, in fact, eight Winston Cup races have been run, just as scheduled.

Drivers live by a fatalistic creed. Strap yourself in and get on with it. Born a half-century ago of Carolina moonshine and bred of a sneer-at-fear mentality that Earnhardt personified, NASCAR never has blanched at its risk-reward ratio.

Legendary driver Richard Petty, whose stature was approached only by Earnhardt's, once said to his wife, "If I get killed and you ever sue anybody over it, I will haunt you. I know the risk. I take all the responsibility."

But accountability no longer rests solely with drivers. NASCAR, nudged to the middle lane of sports entertainment by recent television contracts with Fox and NBC totaling $2.4 billion, must get serious about safety in order to continue to reap the financial benefits a huge national audience brings.

NASCAR, though, can be maddeningly arrogant and impossibly secretive. Changes are made at a perplexingly plodding pace. An organization in charge of cars racing at nearly 200 mph moves like Grandma hunched over the wheel of her '74 Imperial.

On safety issues, NASCAR lags behind Formula One, Championship Auto Racing Teams and the Indy Racing League. Technological advances in driver safety are seemingly met with indifference, investigations of crashes conceal more than they reveal, and every action--or inaction--appears aimed at shielding the organization from culpability.

The macho racing culture serves as NASCAR's great enabler. Earnhardt, stock car racing's most visible and charismatic figure, scoffed at many safety measures and drove with reckless abandon. "It's not a sport for the faint of heart," he often said.

Yet, ironically, the death of the driver known as "the Intimidator" could bring about change. Whispers have turned to shouts. Drivers previously afraid of coming off as wimps are articulating fears and concerns.

Improving driver safety is the overriding challenge NASCAR faces and may well determine whether stock car racing continues its increase in popularity.

"We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to make the car go faster," driver Bret Bodine said. "To not look at safety the same way we look at performance seems pretty stupid to me."

Drivers may be getting smart on their own. There were no crashes in the Talladega 500 on Sunday--not even a caution flag--because the 43 drivers had agreed before the race to display the manners of a cotillion.

"The only real strategy was not to wreck," driver Matt Kenseth said.

Fortunately for the drivers--and NASCAR--it worked.

*

The deaths of Petty, Irwin and Roper resulted from head injuries--basilar skull fractures--caused by violent whiplash. And despite NASCAR's initial efforts to blame Earnhardt's fatality on a faulty seat belt, biomedical expert Barry Myers reviewed the autopsy photos and concluded that Earnhardt died the same way, and probably would have had the seat belt remained intact.

John Melvin, a Detroit racing safety expert, believes whiplash fatalities would be dramatically reduced if drivers wore a head-and-neck support device (HANS) and a six-point harness belt system. Myers acknowledged the potential of such support systems but stopped short of saying one would have saved Earnhardt's life.

Other remedies require funding, research and the support of NASCAR: seats with stronger sides, cars designed to crush in the event of a crash, and track walls either covered with or made of a crushable foam.

Mandating HANS and implementing changes in seat and car design is difficult because stock cars are not uniform.

"To ask them to change can't be done quickly," Melvin said. "Every driver has an individual seating package and the size of the driver plays a role. You can't prevent all injuries. But HANS and these other ideas can make a huge difference."

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