A stock car racing historian might review the '64 season and write that it was the year racing ran under the yellow flag.

There is evidence enough. Joe Weatherly, Glen "Fireball" Roberts, and Jimmy Pardue--major names in the sport during that era--all perished in race-related accidents.

Today, 40 years later, there are engineers, technicians, competitors, and even executives closely associated with racing who would agree these men did not die in vain. The experts would say without hesitation that these lives were a contribution to the overall safety of the sport as we know it today.

"When there is an accident, you sometimes see NASCAR inspectors cover one of the cars and haul it away," Jim Hunter, a NASCAR vice president, said recently. "NASCAR takes the car to its own shop and goes over every piece of equipment to determine what, if anything, can be done to improve safety for the driver. Those inspecting the car look at every piece of metal and decide, first of all, if improvements are necessary.

"Sometimes inspectors find something that calls for a major change in building race cars. Other times it could be something hardly noticeable, but if we think it is important, it goes in the rule book. Little things mount up, too.

Remember Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s fire-filled crash at Infineon Raceway in July? His ability to survive that crash can be traced to the safety innovations-fire suits, gloves, full-face helmets, to name a few-since 1964.

There were plenty of unsafe things for inspectors to find on race cars during that era. To get to 1964, let's go back to 1961 and '62. Pontiac was supplying several NASCAR teams and was virtually unbeatable. This was happening during the supposed ban on automobile racing imposed by the Automobile Manufacturers Association in the summer of 1957

Ford said in the summer of 1962 that it was going racing, despite the AMA resolution. General Motors never admitted involvement in the first place, but all development at Pontiac stopped.

In 1963 General Motors took a parting shot with a few 427ci engines and delivered them to Ray Fox, who had Junior Johnson as his driver. In 1964 Fox could get no help from Chevy, so he switched to Dodge.

Meanwhile, in 1963, Ford had a 1-2-3-4-5 finish in the Daytona 500, and Chrysler was secretly building the hemi engine it had developed in the '50s.

The point is, cars were getting faster in a hurry, and drivers were beginning to complain. Goodyear was conducting secret tests at a test oval in San Angelo, Texas, during the winter, and word leaked out that speeds were up to 180 mph-a figure unheard of in that day.