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Stubborn Ol' Boys

Even After Deaths of Petty and Irwin Last Year, NASCAR Lagging Behind When It Comes to Driver Safety


Mario Andretti awakens a split-second before dying.

"I still wake up from dreams that I am crashing, or that I'm upside down--things I used to dread and fear," he says.

Andretti is 60.

"Thank God I survived that era."

In his time, he did it all: dirt-track stock cars, sprint cars, midget cars, Indy cars, prototype sports cars, NASCAR, Formula One. He won it all: the Indy 500, the Daytona 500, the world driving championship. . . .

And he lived to tell about it.

He cannot count the friends who didn't.

"At the beginning of a season, I would look around at a drivers' meeting and I would think, 'I wonder who's not going to be here at the end,' " he says. "There were years when we lost as many as six guys."

A young Emerson Fittipaldi would glance around the starting grid at the Formula One Grand Prix of Monaco each spring and see 22 drivers.

"We all knew the odds," he says. "Three of us would not survive the season."

Secret Society

Racing was a dangerous business in those days and probably always will be, but it isn't as dangerous as it used to be. Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), the Indy Racing League (IRL) and Formula One, the open-cockpit racing organizations, have taken the lead in safety research and development, in conjunction with manufacturers such as General Motors, Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler and independent racing-safety experts.

Those organizations have specialized, traveling medical units.

Beginning this season, Formula One will require its drivers to wear the HANS--head and neck support system--in all races, and CART will require it in its oval-track events.

The IRL has been the leader in funding for developing "soft wall" technology, and CART is beginning a revolutionary study to determine precisely what happens to a driver's brain during a wreck.

NASCAR, the stock car organization that sanctions by far the most--and most popular--racing in the United States, has no traveling medical unit. It relies on local doctors to staff its trackside medical facilities.

International Speedway Corp., which operates 13 tracks on this year's Winston Cup tour, and is controlled by the France family of Daytona Beach, which also owns NASCAR outright, refuses to divulge the credentials, or even the names, of those doctors and emergency workers.

And although NASCAR maintains it has been active in safety research and development, its officials are secretive about safety research.

NASCAR President Mike Helton said recently that the organization's expenditures on safety research and development this year will reach "seven figures," but added, "I am just not prepared to, or desire to, sit here today and tell you exactly what is going on. . . ."

NASCAR does not require its drivers to wear the HANS, even though all three of its driver fatalities last year were attributed by medical examiners to injuries associated with violent head movement.

Why not?

"Because we are not through the understanding process," Helton said. "The ergonomics inside these stock cars are different," meaning there is more room for head and body movement than in the confining cockpits of F1 and Indy cars.

"We have made different efforts of wall testing, and different mechanical pieces of cars . . . and I don't feel like it's proper to say much further," Helton said, maintaining that NASCAR conducts much of its testing "off-track" at scientific facilities "all over the country."

The only NASCAR-initiated safety research project that came to light last year was at New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon, after two drivers, Adam Petty, on May 12, and Kenny Irwin, on July 7, had been killed in the third turn of that one-mile oval.

NASCAR announced after the fact that it had tested some sort of soft walls but revealed neither details nor results.

The tests, sources say, involved driverless old cars with their throttles tied down, crashed into Styrofoam blocks placed against the concrete walls.

NASCAR has announced no changes in wall requirements stemming from the tests.

Neither has NASCAR divulged the findings of its internal investigations into the two fatal crashes at the track.

Loudon Police Chief Robert Fiske criticized NASCAR for removing evidence from the track before police arrived. The cars were removed almost immediately and were either buried (Petty's) or destroyed (Irwin's), reportedly out of respect for the deceased.

Police weren't on the scene at all after Petty's crash, and made it to the Irwin crash site two hours afterward, when practice had already been resumed.

Fiske said he "couldn't possibly pinpoint whose [skid marks] were whose," and that the walls had already been repainted when he arrived. Otherwise, he said, he could have determined the exact speed, the angle, the route the car traveled and other details of the accident, as his department does in every "untimely" death in his jurisdiction.

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