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AUTO RACING

NASCAR Running Full Bore Despite the Red Flag

Commentary: Unwillingness to be forthcoming about recent track fatalities, investigations and safety issues would indicate the sanction body is in denial.

April 26, 2001|BILL DWYRE | TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

NASCAR is racing in Fontana this weekend, but there is more going on than a bunch of expensive stock cars circling a track. Much more.

This is a sanctioning body currently in denial.

It has had five racing deaths in similar circumstances in the last year--each of the victims died of basilar skull fractures caused by rapid forward head movement--and yet its public stance, no matter how it tries to tweak it with statements of concern, is that it is business as usual.

Its most high-profile loss was Dale Earnhardt, who, if not NASCAR's Michael Jordan was certainly its Wilt Chamberlain. Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion, died during the last lap of the Daytona 500 in February. The sport's showcase was just seconds away from a dramatic finish--Earnhardt was running third, behind cars he owned, one driven by winner Michael Waltrip, the other by Dale Earnhardt Jr.--when Earnhardt's car hit the wall. Triumph became tragedy.

Now, stock car racing, born and raised on the back roads of cotton and tobacco country, a sport that in the last five years has elbowed its way right up alongside the long-established big guys of football, basketball and baseball in the jostling for sponsor money and TV ratings, has a battle on its hands.

Sure, the fan base is still there, probably will be for a long time. People who follow NASCAR love to put a chaw in the cheek and go watch the boys rev it up. They are loyal, enthusiastic and, for the most part, blind to negatives that might exist. That makes them similar to Yankee fans, Packer fans, most any kind of sports fans. NASCAR has served them well, and vice versa.

But even while these race fans are slapping some meat on the grill and swigging down a brew or two in the parking lots around California Speedway this weekend, the clouds that have been drifting over NASCAR for the last year will be around.

Never was this more evident than it was last week, during a rare meeting with the press by Mike Helton. Helton is NASCAR's president, the person entrusted with presenting whatever public face NASCAR wants to show. Which, at the moment, is none.

Helton and other sports bosses--Bud Selig of major league baseball, David Stern of the NBA, Paul Tagliabue of the NFL, etc.--were meeting in New York City with sports editors from papers all over the United States and Canada. It is an annual rite that usually yields more public relations than news.

To Helton's credit, he didn't duck the event, even though he knew it would not be pleasant. He knew this could certainly not be handled by a press release of statistics on increased attendance and TV ratings, followed by a couple of stories about Richard Petty and the good old days. This was not a feet-up-on-the-desk and do-you-guys-need-any-tickets kind of meeting.

Helton knew the history. The week before Earnhardt hit the wall, sending NASCAR into its current public relations bunker, the Tribune newspapers, including The Times, ran an extensive series of stories by Ed Hinton of the Orlando Sentinel on the topic of safety in auto racing.

Many organizations in the sport got high or passing grades, among them CART and IRL. NASCAR did not. Hinton painted a picture of a racing body either unable or unwilling to face up to its recent deaths, a group saying over and over again that it is working on fixing things but never was willing to go beyond that general vague commitment to the specifics of how and when.

Sadly, Earnhardt hit the wall and died. Hinton had, at least indirectly, called the shot.

NASCAR retreated deeper into the bunker.

So, it was with this background that Helton met the press. He was pressed hard on the full range of pertinent questions:

* Why hasn't NASCAR mandated the use of the HANS device for protection against rapid movement of the head and neck in high-speed wrecks, the cause of the five recent deaths?

* If NASCAR is leaning in that direction, why won't it say so?

* What is the status of NASCAR's investigation into Earnhardt's death, which happened more than two months ago?

* Are there investigations into the other deaths and if so, are those completed, and will there be a public airing of the conclusions?

* When will any news of any of this be released?

* Will it ever be released?

* Who is doing the investigations?

* How much technical work is being done on the concept of soft walls?

* Who is doing it?

* What is the progress, if any?

* Has the question of introducing a black box--an accident-recording data device--into NASCAR cars, as they are in some other types of racing cars, been discussed, researched, adopted or rejected?

* What is NASCAR's reaction to the recent independent analysis by a medical expert that Earnhardt's death was the result of a basilar skull fracture caused by the rapid movement of the head when his car hit the wall and that the broken seat belt, the existence of which NASCAR announced the day after Earnhardt's funeral, had nothing to do with the death?

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