In short order, NASCAR issued a new set of rules for the '65 season. The engine displacement remained at 427 ci, but the engines had to be of production design only. That meant no overhead cams, high-risers, and hemi heads. For superspeedways, the minimum wheelbase increased to 119 inches. The standard 116-inch wheelbase remained the same for short tracks.

After Pardue's wreck, NASCAR mandated rules for tire companies when testing, basically stopping crews from lowering the chassis of cars for the sake of running faster during tests. Soon afterward, NASCAR required tracks to have ambulances present for tire tests.

"These three drivers contributed a great deal for our safety," Richard Petty said. "It is sad that it cost them their lives."

"I think we all learn as we go through life," Petty added. "NASCAR, as well as the automotive industry, has gained a great deal from all the wrecks we've had through the years. As long as we are gaining, I guess we are advancing. At least, I hope so. There is an awful lot always at stake."

Winter continues to stop by for a visit each year, and addicts of speed make their way to Daytona Beach for the 500 as they have every February since 1959.

It has been nearly four years since that dreadful day when Dale Earnhardt lost his life on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001. Nothing has shocked the racing world more. Safety experts, as well as aficionados of the sport, continue to study and discuss the wreck. They shake their heads in disbelief, claiming that it looked like so many other racing accidents from which drivers walked away.

On this day, however, one of the most celebrated names in the history of motorsports didn't walk away. The fourth-turn crash took Earnhardt's life, and all of racing mourned the loss.

Almost immediately, NASCAR began looking at race cars in a different way. Nothing in the history of the sanctioning body has motivated racing safety more than Earnhardt's fatal crash.

The Hans and Hutchins head-and-neck restraints that drivers now wear became mandatory equipment within months. Drivers wear full-face helmets now. Additional padding in the cockpit of cars makes drivers safer. Stronger seats and safety belts also help.

NASCAR soon opened a research and development safety center in Concord, North Carolina. Gary Nelson, a former top crewchief and the veteran competition director for NASCAR, is in charge of this operation.

Since the dawn of NASCAR, its officials relied a great deal on crewchiefs and crewmen for advice and direction on safety advancement. However, after the Earnhardt fatality, NASCAR looked further for help. The sanctioning body recruited safety engineers from three automobile manufacturers to help, especially with improving the safety of the front ends of race cars.

NASCAR took another step forward. It recruited three doctors, each an expert in a certain field. Dr. James Melvin is proficient in head and neck injuries and restraints. He began his first research on the cockpit of race cars. Dr. Jim Raddin is a biomechanics expert, involved with the study of the mechanics of living organisms, primarily under conditions of sudden, violent, or prolonged strain. The third specialist is Dr. Dean Sicking of the University of Nebraska, a worldwide authority on highway barriers and rails.

Tony George, the IRL president, became involved as NASCAR moved toward safety walls at racetracks. A good many of today's racetracks have installed the SAFER barriers.

NASCAR and the IRL crashed a lot of race cars during tests, into concrete walls as well as the safety walls. Finally they cut the reduction of impact by 70 percent. One way to reduce impact is by designing walls to keep the car moving so the force dissipates over a longer period of time.

NASCAR hasn't slowed down in its efforts to make racing safer. Said one NASCAR official, "Gary Nelson is crushing material every day, searching for the best energy load that will spread out force before it gets to the cockpit of a race car."

NASCAR also has a state-of-the-art computer that will simulate and recreate any wreck where a car hits something.

Stock car racing will never be as safe as church softball or a community swimming meet, but NASCAR is taking steps to make its sport as safe as possible-and certainly safer than it has ever been.