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 It clings to tradition and "proven technology" that isoften outdated.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.

THE ATTITUDE

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.

"NASCAR doesn't make quick decisions," says team owner Eddie Wood, whoseson Jon races in the Craftsman Truck Series. "It makes good decisions."Be that as it may, much of what NASCAR decided to do in recent years wasalready commonplace in open wheel series like CART and the Indy RacingLeague (IRL):

* The HANS device was developed more than a decade ago by Jim Downing,who first used it in IMSA sport cars.

* CART and the Indy Racing League have 10 years experience with crashdata recorders (introduced with tech support by General Motors Racing),and working with both Ford and General Motors to study what happensinside a car during impact.

* The safety seats now showing up in stock cars mimic those developedfor open wheel racing in the early-'90s.

PRESSURE FROM THE DRIVER SEAT

Today the pressure is on NASCAR to take a more aggressive role inprotecting drivers, and it is coming from inside the cars. For decades,Winston Cup drivers simply considered burns and broken bones as part ofthe cost of doing business. But last season some of them becameunwilling to accept NASCAR's lack of speed when it comes to safety. Theybegan speaking out on issues such as rescue workers apparentlyunfamiliar with the inside of a stock car, poor response time by medicaltechnicians, and the dangers of sitting in a burning car in the middleof a track while cars race past them under the yellow flag.

Driver Ryan Newman said the rescue crew that responded to him after heflipped at Watkins Glen in the fall was unsure how to get him out of thecar. "It was pretty ridiculous," Newman says. "When they got there, theydidn't know what they were doing. I'll be vocal about it because it's mybutt sitting in that race car," Newman stresses.

NASCAR, in recent years, has attracted drivers--Newman, Jeff and RobbieGordon, Casey Mears, and Christian Fittipaldi--who have seen how thingsare done elsewhere and have become critical of the contrasts.

NASCAR's policy that allows drivers to race back to the stripe under ayellow flag has come under sharp criticism. Other series freeze cars inplace, so to speak, when the caution comes out, and punish drivers whopass another car under the yellow flag. "I just don't think we could dothat with 43 cars, some of them running four wide," NASCAR's Nelsonsays. "And even if we could, it might take 30 minutes to sort it all outbefore we could get back to racing."

Back in the pack, you could have one driver who decides to slow down,but two more behind him who decide to take advantage of the situation,he said. The latter point doesn't seem to be an issue with the seriesthat don't race to the stripe under caution.

Racing to the stripe means cars pass through wreckage at racingspeeds--often causing secondary crashes--and it prevents rescue crewsfrom rolling until the pace car captures the field. "I guarantee you itis something every driver would like to see changed," says JimmyJohnson, driver of the Lowe's Chevrolet. Johnson also wants a rescueteam similar to the one used in CART and the Indy Racing League.

[Editor's Note: As we went to press, NASCAR banned racing back to thestripe, beginning at the Fall Dover event. Finally.]

TRAVELING SAFETY CREWS

CART has its own rescue/medical unit that travels to each race. Itincludes a portable trauma center better equipped than the emergencyrooms of many small hospitals. It arrives with trucks equipped forracetrack injuries and trauma doctors who know the medical history ofeach driver. The crews are EMTs from around the country who during theweek, staff ambulances and medical evacuation helicopters.

"These are the best in the business," says Lon Bromley, who heads CART's on-track rescue team. "They take everything they learn during the weekand apply it on the weekend. There are no rookies on the team. Every oneof these guys is here because he wants to be here . . . not because he just happens to be pulling duty that weekend."

In contrast, NASCAR contracts with local rescue units to staff thetrack. Nelson says local doctors are better able to call upon localexperts for specialized help. "You don't need an orthopedic surgeon totreat an eye injury," he says. "Local doctors know who the best eyedoctor is, and they can call upon him if his expertise is needed."

"I kinda like that system," agrees Michael Waltrip, driver of the NAPAChevrolet. "I like the idea that the guys at the track know the localdoctors and hospitals." In reality, it is the trackside crews who mostoften determine whether or not a driver races again. Their actions inthe first few minutes after a crash are critical. Being familiar withhow a race car is built and what type of injuries a driver may havesustained in prior wrecks can influence proper action to take at thescene.

Waltrip hasn't spent much time with other racing series. Casey Mears,among the Raybestos Rookie class of 2003, drove in CART from 1999-'01.He knows how its safety team works.

"If I had never experienced it, I wouldn't know any better," says the

driver of the Target Dodge in NASCAR. "It was reassuring to know thatthe guys on the safety crew were almost like the guys on your team,because if you are hurting bad and you see someone you know, it suremakes a big difference compared to someone you don't know."

NASCAR holds training seminars for the local rescue crews. Multi-champJeff Gordon doesn't think that is enough. When he crashed at WatkinsGlen (after being punted by Kevin Harvick in sight of the finish line),the rescue crew went to his car rather than to Gordon, who had alreadyclimbed out of the wreck and was walking toward the trauma center. Theambulance had to slog its way to the medical center in a sea of racefans leaving the track. It took an estimated 10 minutes to get Gordon tothe care center. "We need to know they are properly trained, properlyinformed, and prepared," Gordon says. "I want to see trained guys . . .prepared to deal with every situation."

FIRE FEAR

A driver's worst fear is fire. This season there were fires on pit roadsand a number of crashes where cars burst into flame upon impact. AfterWinston Cup drivers Ken Schrader, Dale Jarrett, Ryan Newman, and BobbyLabonte were forced to scramble from burning cars, NASCAR required afire extinguisher and distribution nozzle in the trunk in 2003. Again,the technology is there to help eliminate or reduce fuel system fires,but NASCAR has been slow to adopt it, clinging to metal dump cans andoutdated fuel cells.

"Right now we are building the best fuel cell we can under the rules,"says Doug Packard, in charge of Fuel Safe's sales to NASCAR teams. "Butif the rules were different, we could build a much better one. We couldmake one almost bulletproof."

Fuel in Winston Cup cars is carried inside a metal container, whichencloses a foam-filled cell wrapped in a material many times strongerthan ballistic nylon or Kevlar. "I can't say what it is," says Packard."But it works." Packard said the Oregon company could improve fuel cellsby incorporating a fill ring into the construction--which is done inCART and the IRL--rather than building a system that bolts together. Itwould be more expensive and almost impossible to repair, but it wouldeliminate one of the weak points in the current NASCAR construction."The actual fuel cell rarely fails," he says. "They can take enormouscrashes and not rupture. The problem is in the filler neck and checkvalve."

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.

WHAT'S NASCAR DONE?

Gary Nelson, chief of NASCAR's research and development center, says"plenty."

Recent changes include:

* Helmets for the pit wall crewmembers.

* Standards for restraint systems and seats.

* Tethers on wheel spindles and body parts, and an upgraded standard in2003 when NASCAR determined the tethers weren't up to the worst casescenario.

* Head and neck restraints.

* Use of "soft walls" on some tracks.

What's next? Nelson says the R&D center hopes to complete testing andfinal design on a roof-top exit hole to allow drivers to scramble tosafety. The system was tested last fall in a car that rolled six timesat 130 mph. But in what areas is NASCAR being pressured to improve?

* Better training for rescue crews or creation of a mobile rescueoperation patterned after those used in open wheel racing. --Jerry Boone

SAFETY EXPERTISE

Fontana, California--The call "yellow, yellow, yellow" comes over theradio, and CART's 16-member safety team rolls onto California Speedwaybefore the last word echoes in Lon Bromley's headphones. "That's all thesignal we get," says Bromley, long-time head of CART's Simple GreenSafety Team of paramedics. "That's our signal to roll the trucks."

In CART, there's no racing back to the start/finish stripe. No driverrushes through a smoke-filled accident scene, hoping to avoid unseencarnage. Each driver knows immediately that rescue rigs are on thetrack. They are expected to slow down, keep their place, and move overto let the rescue crews go by. "The biggest factor in our response timeis the issue of racing under the yellow," Bromley says. "For us,response time is critical. Every second we save brings us closer tosaving a driver from further injury.

"After an impact, the head almost always falls forward, and the chinends up on the driver's chest. That cuts off his air. A couple ofminutes without air and you can be looking at serious brain damage."

At California Speedway--the only track where both Winston Cup and CART'sChamp Cars compete--the safety team shows up with four rescue trucks, atleast 16 fully trained paramedics, and a state-of-the-art medical centerthat is better equipped than the emergency room in many communityhospitals.

Long ago in 1984, CART drivers had the same concerns Winston Cup driversvoiced last season. They knew response time to crashes was inadequate,they questioned how well trained some of the people were who showed upto help them, and they wanted organizers to solve the problem before itcost a life.

"What we had were volunteers who showed up at the track just to get infree," Bromley says. "It might be an X-ray technician." Last year, CARTspent about $1.5 million for its rescue team, recognized as the best inthe round-track and road course business. NHRA's Safety Safari holds thedistinction for straightliners. Each rescue truck is equipped withfire-fighting and rescue equipment. They are all identical, so everyparamedic knows where everything is on every truck.

"With four trucks, we can work on multiple wrecks at the same time," hesays. "We don't have to decide who we go to first. We can go to fourdifferent vehicles at once. I don't think many tracks are set up to domultiple rescues."

Team members are veterans who have risen through the ranks in firedepartments, ambulance service, and rescue helicopters. "We don't haveany rookies," declares Bromley. "And when the guys leave the trackSunday night, they all go back to full-time jobs in emergency services.They draw on what they learn during the week when they show up for arace on weekends. I won't have anyone on the crew who isn't working fulltime," he says. "I want them at the top of their skill."

Each of the four seats in the truck carries a different responsibility.The driver is the rescue team leader. He positions the truck as abarrier between his crew and oncoming cars, and jumps from the rig torush to the driver. He and the front seat passenger are responsible forassessing the driver's condition and figuring out immediately what needsto be done.

One of the first things the lead paramedic does is look the driver inthe eye and ask questions.

"When you know these guys as well as we do, you can tell a lot by howthey react . . . you know if there is something wrong inside thehelmet," Bromley says.

Meanwhile, one of the back seat paramedics races to the scene withfire-fighting equipment. The fourth becomes the backup to any of thethree who need help.

Inside the CART medical center, the emergency physician watches atelevision monitor to review the wreck and see what the paramedics aredoing for the driver. "The entire medical team is on the same radio, soeveryone knows what we are working with," Bromley says. They will reporta driver's condition, using one of four numbers based on the severity ofthe injuries.

"Depending on the number, the pilots may be asked to warm up thehelicopter," Bromley says.

Knowing what's going on at the track helps the doctors and hisassistants prep for action. The system also allows the emergency team todetermine if the driver needs to be transported directly to thehospital. That was the case two years ago when Alex Zanardi lost bothlegs in a crash in Germany and was in danger of bleeding to death.Zanardi survived the crash and last summer drove demonstration lapsaround the German oval in a car equipped with hand controls.

"Alex was certainly the high point for our system," Bromely says. "Butthere have been a lot of others people don't even know about. And everynow and again, something happens and there is nothing you can do."

Popular Greg Moore died at California Speedway in 1999. He was deadbefore the crew got to the scene.

"Those are the tough ones," Bromley says. "Those are the tough ones." --Jerry Boone

WHAT ABOUT THE REST OF US?

Concerns about safety exist at every level of racing because there isdanger no matter if you race at Rockingham, North Carolina, or Rockford,Illinois. "Some tracks do a very good job," says Dave Hatlem with K&KInsurance, the company that holds policies on most racetracks and manyteams and events throughout the country.

"Other tracks don't do a very good job at all," he says.

Hatlem says there are about 1,100 short tracks in America, and K&Krefuses to insure about a third of them. Issues range from the height offences to the type of fire equipment. "And some of it is simply theoperator's attitude toward safety," he points out.

For example, there are tracks that still don't require fire suits, andaccept DOT-approved helmets, rather than those that meet the stricterSnell Foundation standards. A few tracks consider gasoline tanks builtfor boats as meeting their "fuel cell" requirement. Poorly trainedrescue crews have been known to spray water on gasoline fires, spreadingthe blaze rather than containing it.

Mark Beck, K&K's vice president of market resources, says drivers atshort tracks are just as likely to be injured as Winston Cup starsrunning at Daytona or Darlington. "In Winston Cup the speed is greaterbut the skill level is also greater," Beck says. "On a short track, carsaren't going very fast, but you have a huge difference in the ability ofthe people behind the wheel. Statistically, the numbers of incidents areabout the same."

The insurance company's chief concern is for spectators, so its emphasisis on safety for people who sit outside the oval. "The drivers know thedangers," Beck says. "They all sign the waiver." Bottom line: If you areon-track, you must take responsibility for your safety. --JerryBoone

  • «
  • |
  • 1
  • |
  • 2
  • |
  • 3
  • |
  • 4
  • |
  • 5
  • |
  • 6
  • |
  • View Full Article