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.

"Everybody's handling is so good that they're running bumper to bumper out there," says Rusty Wallace, driver of the Miller Lite Ford. "The tires are so good that they're real hard and they're not giving up any speed at all."

That means drivers can push the limits longer. At most tracks, the preferred groove is to stick to the bottom of the track, right above the apron. Passing becomes more difficult. Drivers must take greater risks to gain a position. Also, running at the bottom means that if the driver has trouble, he must travel farther before hitting the retaining wall.

ARCA driver Frank Kimmel says speeds at most tracks keep getting faster. "I remember going to Charlotte for the first time and running a 32- or 33-second lap and ran among the fastest," he says. "Now, if you don't get in the 29s, you're not in the game."

Kimmel, like Wallace, also points to the tires and aerodynamic changes made in recent years to the race cars. "You can approach the edge and stay on it a lot longer than you could a few years ago."

And no longer are just a handful of cars on the lead lap. The level of competition has reached the point that a driver has no time to back off.

"The cars have gotten so specialized, especially in Winston Cup, that you can't give the guy even a 10th of a second a lap," Kimmel says. "You have to be on the best line every lap or they'll get away from you and eventually put you a lap down. Those guys are searching for the perfect lap every single lap."

The ResponseJust a few years ago, fans would have seen little but excitement in the huge crashes that commonly happen at Talladega and Daytona. Now that the consequences are obvious, many are stepping forward and saying they'll give up some close racing in exchange for keeping their heroes safe.

"Although it's fun to watch, it's going to cause a driver to be seriously injured or killed," says fan Riley Boren. "I am a devout Dale Earnhardt fan, and if there would have been changes sooner when the drivers complained the first time about how dangerous it was to run that close, maybe Dale would still be around."

Fan Butch Williams says he'll never forget the sick feeling he got inside when rescue squads removed Blaise Alexander from his wrecked car. "Just seeing the blue tarp being spread over everything to obscure the view, you knew then that something's bad. I hadn't seen that before in person, and I hope I never have to again."

Drivers have taken a much greater interest in safety, and have spoken out frequently on the subject. However, it wasn't until Earnhardt died that most made the issue their priority.

"Back earlier in my career I never considered safety," Wallace says. "I was watching an old video the other day and an in-car camera from my 27 car. It looked like I was sitting four miles up in the seat and my whole body was just flopping around. I had an open-face helmet, no head restraints."

Wallace says his approach to safety has been anything but a gradual evolution. "It was a hit in the head after Earnhardt got killed," he says. "When the other fellows lost their lives in Loudon (New Hampshire), we were saying, 'Man, we need to take care of the throttle to make sure it doesn't stick.' When Earnhardt died, it brought an entirely new perspective."

Jeff Burton, driver of the Citgo Ford, says he's amazed that some drivers, at any level, decline to wear a head-and-neck restraint.

"In all the fatalities we've had in stock car racing in the last 18 months, none of those people had a head-and-neck restraining device," Burton says. Although it will never be known if the device would have prevented any of the deaths, Burton says, "You have to do everything you can to give yourself the best chance possible."

Walk through the Winston Cup garage area and you'll see firsthand what drivers are doing with safety. Seats with elaborate head restraints. Additional netting to restrict head movement. Improved padding.

Wallace says, however, that he fears some drivers may be going overboard with safety equipment, to the point that they may have trouble getting out of the car quickly in case of a fire. "Some of the guys have so much stuff that it looks like you'd have to lower them into the cars to get them inside," he says.

What Next?Drivers know they can't worry about the risks of their job, and dwell on the recent deaths, if they expect to do well each race. All they can do is prepare the best they know how and hope for the best.

"We all know it can happen, and it's really tough when it happens to someone as close as Blaise and I were," Kimmel says. "To see something like that happen, it makes you hug your kids more. But as far as what we do in a race car, you strap in and you can't really think about that stuff.

"Hopefully you've done your homework and God is going to be with you all day."

Kimmel says that, like fans, he gives a sigh of relief when he sees a driver walk away from a crash. "I guess with all of the things that's happened, the first thing you do is you want to see some movement inside the car. If he's got a broken leg, that's OK. He can walk later. The initial thing is fearing the worst."

Wallace was asked what he would tell a fan who worries about his safety.

"I think if they saw what I had in the car now, they'd feel a little more comfortable," Wallace says. "I want to be secure in the car, but I also want to be mobile. You have to balance them both."

Burton discusses his outlook: "I'm a pilot, also. When I hop in my airplane, I don't think I'm cheating death. When I hop in my race car, I don't think I'm cheating death. I may die in my race car. I may die in my street car. I may die in my sleep. I don't know how I'm going to die when I die. I don't fear getting killed in my race car. I don't want to be injured in my race car and have a debilitating injury."

Burton believes he has done all he can to protect himself.

"The only thing I can tell the fans is there is a tremendous amount of effort being put into making racing safer," Burton says. "We want to make it to where you can have a bad wreck and be back at the track racing the next week. We've seen some really violent wrecks with obviously bad results. Those wrecks have shown us we need to be doing something different. There's a tremendous effort in the garage because of what we've seen with seat belts and head-and-neck devices. This is a different garage than it was a year ago at this time.

"In the fatalities, those drivers weren't taking advantage of all the safety improvements we have today. That's not to say we're not going to have more fatalities in racing, but things are certainly safer and people are really looking at the safety products we have available to us today more than ever. That's all I can say because I can't sit here and say people are not going to get hurt or injured, or something even worse. We can only promise there's a tremendous effort and desire to prevent it from happening again."

Drivers know that future safety developments will take time. In the meantime, they have a job to do.

"There's no doubt we need to make these cars more crushable," says Jeff Gordon, driver of the DuPont Chevrolet. "We need to find ways to soften these walls up so they absorb the impact yet don't make it worse. But it's not going to happen right away. Anybody that gets out there knows that. I know it and I'm still planning on getting out there. I'm sorry if you don't agree with that or understand that, but it's just the mentality of a race car driver."

Only the start of a new season will tell if times will return to normal, if people can finally put the deaths behind them.

"I think sometimes it goes in spurts," Sabates says. "We may not see another death in five years, but racing and death goes hand in hand. When these guys strap themselves in a car, they know their lives can be over in a few seconds. Look at the guys in the World Trade Center. They didn't expect to die.

"When the good Lord decides that's what he wants for you, there's nothing you can do about it."

Another Painful TimeThough many people think this may be NASCAR's darkest hour, with the deaths of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, Tony Roper and Dale Earnhardt, racing historian Bob Latford recalls an equally difficult time.

"Tragedy has seemed to come in bunches lately, but we went through the same thing in the mid-'60s," Latford says. "Everything started in 1964 in the season opener at Riverside when Joe Weatherly got killed. Joe is the only defending Winston Cup champion to ever be killed in a racing accident. Then Fireball Roberts was burned really badly at Charlotte in the World 600 (later succumbing to those injuries). In the fall of '64 at Charlotte, Jimmy Pardue was killed while tire testing.

"The next death came at Daytona in 1965 when Billy Wade was killed tire testing the inner-liner. Then we lost two more drivers in 1965 at Darlington and Charlotte."

The deaths prompted several improvements in safety.

Following Weatherly's crash, the use of a shoulder harness became mandatory, while Roberts' death led to the requirement of fuel cells. The other fatalities led to the reduction of steel guardrails, an additional crotch belt on the seat belt, as well as the introduction of driver's-side rollbars to protect the competitors in case of being hit in the driver-side door.

"Most of the tragedies in NASCAR have led to some kind of improvement to either the car or the track itself," Latford says. "Bad wrecks are something we do see, and it's tragic when it happens, but they have led to improvements in safety. I guess the nature of the beast in racing is bad things can happen, and it's important to learn from the bad to make for a safer future."-Jason Mitchell

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