NASCAR and the rest of stock car racing have made sweeping changes toimprove driver safety in the almost three years since Dale Earnhardtdied at Daytona. Winston Cup drivers have all but abandoned open facehelmets. Head-and-neck restraints are mandatory in NASCAR's top series,and data from "black boxes" recording impact loads are being used todesign safer cars.

Yet America's most popular form of racing remains behind lesser knownseries when it comes to protecting its drivers. "I think a few years agocriticism may have been valid," says Gary Nelson, who heads NASCAR'sresearch and development center. "I don't think that is true today, andwe continue to improve safety in the series."

Despite Nelson's position and recent gains in NASCAR:

* Rescue crews often lack training to deal with accidents and theunique construction of race cars.

* Drivers at some local bullrings race with little safety gear and,even in Winston Cup, are not required to use the best life-savingequipment available.

* National Stock Car racing--with its "not invented here"syndrome--remains slow to adopt or adapt proven safety measures fromother series. It clings to tradition and "proven technology" that isoften outdated. NASCAR falls back on time-consuming in-house researchthat often delays making changes that have already saved lives in otherforms of racing.


Racing's prevailing attitude in this country toward safety begins withthe waiver. Everyone signs one before they get a racing license or gothrough the back gate at any track in America. No one ever reads it, butthey all know what it says: Racing's dangerous. You can die doing thisfor fun. Leave your lawyer at home. When someone gets hurt, racersshuffle their feet, shrug their shoulders, and mentally review thewaiver they've never read.

"He knew it was dangerous when he got in the car," they tell oneanother. And they think it can't happen to them.

Then an icon dies and NASCAR racing gets "safety religion," after someintense media scrutiny and manufacturer pressure and education. Softwalls. Ignition cut-off switches. Helmets for the over-the-wall crew.The technology exists to make racing even safer, yet NASCAR and otherstock car organizations are slow to embrace or require it.