It's the last lap at Talladega and, as usual, cars are running in a huge pack, just inches apart. Suddenly, something goes wrong. Sixteen cars start spinning wildly. The car of Bobby Labonte flips onto its roof and begins a grinding slide.

How does that make you feel?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. roars across the start/finish line to win the race. Do you pay much attention, or do your eyes turn back to the crash scene? Do you wonder if everyone is OK? Do you look for drivers to emerge from their cars? For them to lower their window nets, a signal that they're fine?

Chances are, just two years ago you would have cheered wildly at the victory and written off the accident as just another spectacular "big wreck" that almost predictably occurs at tracks like Talladega and Daytona.

That was before Adam Petty died. Before Kenny Irwin died. Tony Roper. Dale Earnhardt. Blaise Alexander.

Now, the mood has changed for many race fans, competitors, car owners and others involved in racing. For beyond the debate on safety, and what should be done to protect drivers, lies the simple fact that five top racers have died. That leaves some people worrying about who may be next.

The FalloutOnly time can ease the anxiety that normally follows any tragedy. That will be the same for racing. Until people are convinced that safety innovations work, they will be stuck with the same gnawing fears that another top name may die.

"The recent deaths on the racing circuit have definitely affected the way I watch races," says fan Valerie Yelverton. "Any time any driver is involved in an accident I wait attentively to ensure that person's safety before I do anything else. Especially since Dale Earnhardt's death in February."

Normally, people dread the end of a racing season. But the deaths in 2001, on the heels of the loss of Petty, Roper and Irwin in 2000, had many people anxious to put the season behind them, and pray to begin a new, safer chapter in 2002.

"It's been a terrible year," says Larry McReynolds, a commentator with FOX and consultant to Petty Enterprises. "It's so sad because a lot of great things have happened, but no one will remember 2001 for the great things that have happened.

"You look at Michael Waltrip winning the Daytona 500, Kevin Harvick stepping in and being the most sensational rookie that's ever come along. Dodge's return. A new spark in some of our older veterans that some people had written off. Going to two beautiful new venues, Chicago and Kansas.

"The list goes on and on, but people are going to remember 2001 by losing the greatest race car driver that's ever strapped a helmet on his head, by losing Blaise Alexander, and the fact that our country went through one of the greatest disasters that it's probably ever been through."

An underlying feeling of "enough already" has enveloped many people in the sport.

"I've been very close to death in racing," says Felix Sabates, part owner of the team that fields Winston Cup cars for Sterling Marlin and Jason Leffler. "John Nemechek died when Joe Nemechek drove for me. Adam Petty was like one of my kids. Kenny Irwin and Blaise Alexander were like a nephew to me. He (Alexander) drove my Busch car all last year. We thought about putting him in the 01 car this year before Jason. I was fairly close to Dale Earnhardt.

"I've seen enough death already. We don't need any more of it."

What's Going OnThe cause, or contributing factors, of the driver fatalities has been debated for months. Some think the chassis of a stock car is too stiff, allowing too much of the shock from a crash to be transferred to the driver. Others say the deaths could have been avoided had the drivers been wearing head-and-neck restraints.

But what about the circumstances that may contribute to a driver crashing in the first place? After all, if drivers are in a situation in which they're more likely to suffer hard crashes, it stands to reason that the injuries would be more severe.