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What Price Safety?

Deaths in Auto Racing Appear to Be Preventable With New Features, but NASCAR Seems Unwilling to Change Its Attitude

February 11, 2001|ED HINTON | TRIBUNE MOTOR SPORTS WRITER

About the Project

This is the result of six months of research and reporting by Tribune Auto Race Writer Ed Hinton, with help from staffers at other Tribune papers, among them Darin Esper of the Los Angeles Times. It sheds new light on the decline of traditional fatalism among race drivers and the need for more research and action to prevent the violent deaths the sport has come to accept. In this two-part series, Hinton explores new head-securing apparatus, softer walls and the wide divergence of opinion on some of these safety issues among the leading racing groups: CART, IRL, Formula One and NASCAR.

*

When Adam Petty's race car slammed into a concrete wall last May at 150 mph, his body was tightly secured by a safety harness and seat belt. What doomed the 19-year-old grandson of legendary stock car driver Richard Petty was that his head was inadequately restrained.

As the car came to its horrifically sudden stop, laws of physics kept young Petty's head hurtling in the direction of impact--laterally to the right, and slightly forward. The only tethers holding his head to his body were his neck muscles and spinal column, which came under enormous stress.

His head hyper-extended so violently that he suffered what trauma specialists call basal skull fracture--actually a set of injuries during which the fragile bottom of the rear of the skull cracks from stress, often cutting arteries and causing rapid blood loss, and destroying nerve cells that control such life functions as breathing and heart rate.

Then and there, continuation of NASCAR's most famous driving dynasty "just evaporated," says Richard Petty.

The terrible details of Adam Petty's death open an even deeper tragedy found during a sixth-month investigation into racing safety: Basal skull fracture and similar injuries caused by violent head movement have been the most common cause of death among race drivers over the last 10 years--the same time span during which a device, scientifically proven to prevent just such injuries, has been available.

Adam Petty should be alive today. So should Kenny Irwin, another rising NASCAR star who died of nearly identical injuries only eight weeks later. So should five of the six other NASCAR drivers killed in the last decade. And so--all told--should at least 12 of the last 15 drivers killed in major auto racing worldwide since 1991, if only . . .

If only auto racing had moved faster to develop and refine the head-restraint device that was invented nearly 20 years ago, as well as other safety innovations stuck on the drawing board because of inadequate funding for research and development. This, in a sport through which billions of dollars flow annually.

Indeed, if only two of the long-overdue breakthroughs--the head-restraint device and so-called "soft wall" technology, which would greatly lessen the impact energy of cars hitting concrete, had been in place, the last decade might have brought an end to the dying that has been the dark delineator of auto racing from other sports since the first driver fatality in 1898.

"We'd be much further ahead if we had been concerting high-quality research, with consistent funding, over the last 30 years," said John Melvin, a Detroit biomechanical engineer and one of the world's leading authorities on racing injuries.

"Look at all the money being spent on winning alone," added Melvin, who believes that "even a tiny fraction of that" could finance great leaps in safety.

Is financial profit--which would be reduced, but not by much, by safety innovations--more important to the moguls of racing than driver safety?

"Always," Indy car driver Michael Andretti says. "Always."

Other sad findings:

* A poor record by track owners, racing teams and organizations of supporting the development of safety measures that could have saved the lives of young Petty and others.

Only now is the HANS--head and neck support system--being put to use. And energy-dissipating soft walls have undergone only minimal testing under race conditions.

* Most major racing organizations have heeded the grim message delivered by fatalities in their series, and have taken steps to improve safety conditions for their drivers. But American racing's wealthiest and most popular organization, NASCAR, has become the international focal point of continuing tragedy.

Three drivers died in NASCAR stock car racing accidents in 2000--Petty in the Busch series, Irwin in Winston Cup and Tony Roper in Craftsman Trucks--but there were no fatalities last year in the two major categories of open-cockpit racing historically considered the most dangerous: Formula One or Grand Prix cars, and Indianapolis-type cars of the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) series and the Indy Racing League (IRL).

* More NASCAR drivers, eight, have died of racing crashes in the last 10 years than in Formula One and Indy car racing combined.

* A macho acceptance of death as an occupational hazard.

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