A hard crash can rip the filler neck off the fuel cell. The heavy steel,caged check valve ball inside is designed to stop fuel flow if the caris upside down, but doesn't do much if it remains upright or on itsside, even though fuel may be spilling from it.

Packard said Fuel Safe gave NASCAR an improved prototype fuel cell forevaluation. It incorporates the new fill ring and a check valve thatwill control fuel spill, even if the car remains upright. "It will be upto them to decide if they want to require it," he says. "I'm not surehow long that may take, or if they will even approve it. It's asubstantial change over what they use now." The new cell could beincorporated into rules governing the next generation of race car, stillbeing developed at NASCAR's research center.

TUBES, TUBS, and ESCAPE HATCHES

The very foundation of the stock car makes it difficult to change orimprove. Like the Timex watch of years gone by, they are built to take abeating and keep competing. There isn't another race car in the worldthat can take the physical punishment of a Winston Cup car and not haveto be retired for the day, or written off entirely. These tube-framecars (whose design was introduced by Holman-Moody in the '60s) areracing's version of the battering ram, and because of that, Winston Cupand Busch races often finish after 500 miles with more cars on the leadlap than CART even starts.

Because the cars are built to survive such a beating, their driversoften suffer more abuse than their open wheel counterparts. A CART ChampCar, for instance, is made to crush and absorb energy in a crash. Thecentersection, called a tub, is made of carbon fiber over aluminumhoneycomb and protects the driver in what amounts to a survival pod. Asparts come off the cars and the nose crushes, the energy absorptiondramatically reduces the g-loads on the driver. It also means that mostaccidents eliminate the car for the day.

Stock cars have no "crush zones" beyond a few steel tubes that keep thebodywork in place. Most of the forces from an impact (measured ing-loads) are transmitted directly to the driver.

Putting aside the issues of equipment installation and performance, itwas the sudden g-load that killed Earnhardt by over-extending his neck.Since his death, NASCAR requires its drivers to wear head restraints,either the HANS or Hutchens-style device, to reduce those types ofinjuries.

But tests results reported last year at the Society of AutomotiveEngineers Motorsports Conference in Indianapolis indicated that only theHANS device protects drivers from injury in crashes severe enough to befatal. [These test results were not universally accepted at theConference. --Ed.] NASCAR critics contend it allows the Hutchens Devicesimply because it was developed "inside NASCAR" and is sold through itsofficial suppliers.

"There may be accidents where the HANS is better," Nelson says. "Andthere may be some where the Hutchens is better. No two are alike andthey probably aren't equal under all conditions. At least they arerequired to wear one," Nelson says. "It is up to them to pick which onethey want."

Some drivers resist using the HANS device because the horse collar-likesystem restricts movement when they try to get out of a car in a hurry.

NASCAR is also working on an escape hatch of sorts on the top of the carto help drivers get out faster.

"They've just got to do that," says Waltrip, among the tallest driversin Winston Cup. "The cars keep getting smaller and smaller, and it justgets harder and harder to get out in a hurry." Like Waltrip, Eddie Woodthinks a better escape route from a crashed car should be a priority."We've seen cars into the wall on the left side, and drivers have tocrawl over all the tubes and lines and stuff to get out," he says. "Itjust takes too long."

Nelson says NASCAR will first offer the escape hatch as an option, andmay require it later. "We have been working on this quite a while," hesays. "Every time we think we have something that looks good, we beginto consider a new scenario where it may not work. We don't want to bringsomething out and then wish we had tested it some more because weencounter a problem we didn't think of."

"Those are smart people there," Wood says. "They don't make decisionswithout being certain they are right. They aren't going to solve oneproblem and create another one by doing it."

But taking too long to make a safety change in the racing world may costanother life, instead of just time. NASCAR, so far, chooses to take itstime.