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NASCAR slow to learn from racing tragedies

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Mario Andretti awakens a split-second before dying.

"I still wake up from dreams that I am crashing or that I'm upside down -- things I used to dread and fear."

He is now 60.

"Thank God I survived that era."

In his time, he did it all: dirt-track stock cars, sprint cars, midget cars, Indy cars, prototype sports cars, NASCAR, Formula One. He won it all: the Indy 500, the Daytona 500, the world driving championship . . .

And he lived to tell about it.

He cannot count the friends who didn't.

"At the beginning of a season, I would look around at a drivers' meeting and I would think, 'I wonder who's not going to be here at the end,' " he says. "There were years when we lost as many as six guys."

A young Emerson Fittipaldi would glance around the starting grid at the Formula One Grand Prix of Monaco each spring and see 22 drivers.

"We all knew the odds," he says. "Three of us would not survive the season."

During the 35 years Richard Petty raced in NASCAR, he often would admonish his wife, Lynda. "If I get killed, if you ever sue anybody over it, I will haunt you," he told her. "I know the risk. I take all the responsibility."

1st racing death in 1898

That has been the mind-set of racing drivers worldwide, since the first fatality among them, the Marquis de Montaignac at Course de Perigueux in France in 1898.

Hundreds followed in the bloodiest lineage in all of sports.

Western civilization was quickly polarized on the subject of motor racing. There were masses revolted by it, and masses drawn to the mystique of the sport that killed almost banally.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway alone, in the first half of the century, became a notorious arena of death. From 1929 to 1940, the only fatality-free year there was 1936. The Indy 500s of 1933, '35 and '37 killed four men each.

Then came the hideously historic year of 1955. Six drivers -- including star Billy Vukovich, who died while going for his third consecutive Indy 500 victory -- were killed that season in racing for Indianapolis-type cars sanctioned by the American Automobile Association.

Worse, when Pierre Levegh crashed into the grandstands early in the 1955 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France, 81 spectators died with him immediately; the final death toll eventually surpassed 100 as others succumbed to their injuries.

Under enormous public pressure, racing began to take steps in safety. By 1959, seat belts and roll bars were mandatory in Indy cars. But the most nightmarish cause of death, fire, remained.

Memorial Day weekend 1964 changed that.

1964 was turning point

In arguably the most hideous crash ever at Indy, dashing young driver Dave MacDonald and clowning crowd-pleaser Eddie Sachs perished together in a cloud of fire.

In NASCAR, on the same day at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a similar cloud engulfed the car of Southern folk hero Glenn Roberts, ironically long known by the nickname "Fireball." He died five weeks later.

In the wake of the '64 catastrophes came fire-retardant uniforms for drivers and "fuel cells" for cars; the cells were rubber bladders highly resistant to rupturing in crashes.

The young Mario Andretti arrived in Indy-car racing that same year. Because of his fearless driving style, he began receiving Christmas cards in July. It was black-humored admiration from fans; the message was that they didn't expect him to live until the December holiday.

"We accepted it," Andretti says of death, "as part of doing business. When one of us got it, we said, 'Well, it was just his turn. I hope it's not mine next time.'

"It was like going to war. Each time you strapped into a race car, you never knew if you were coming back."

"The Flying Scot," Jim Clark, the best Formula One driver of his day and the Indy 500 winner in 1965, was killed at Hockenheim, Germany, in 1968. In 1970, Austrian Jochen Rindt became the only F1 driver ever awarded the world driving championship posthumously, dying at Monza, Italy. In 1971, Pedro Rodriguez of Mexico died in Germany and Jo Siffert of Switzerland died at Brands Hatch, England. Two global ladies' men died in '74 -- Revlon cosmetics heir Peter Revson of the United States at Kyalami, South Africa, and Francois Cevert of France at Watkins Glen, N.Y.

And feared old Indy maintained its reputation as a killer: Chuck Rodee in '66, visiting British F1 driver Mike Spence in '68, Jim Malloy in '72. In '73 came the Brickyard's still-notorious "Year of Fire and Rain," when rain delays spread the carnage over weeks. Art Pollard died during practice. Swede Savage died five weeks after suffering grave injuries in a race that was so chaotic, even crew member Armando Teran was killed -- by a firetruck speeding to Savage's crash and going the wrong way on the pit road.

Legendary Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray took a singular stand on Indy: "Gentlemen, start your coffins," he wrote in the Year of Fire and Rain.

Then in 1975: "If the Kentucky Derby is the Run for the Roses, then this [Indy] is the Run for the Lilies."

Yet Murray differentiated between the open-wheel forms and NASCAR's big, heavy stock cars. "NASCAR's safe," Murray said privately at Indy in '75. "Not at all like this stuff."

Thus would NASCAR's image continue, for decades to come, while open-wheel racing remained notorious.

Another gruesome season was in 1982: In Formula One, Canada's definitive daredevil, Gilles Villeneuve (father of current F1 star Jacques Villeneuve) and Italian rookie Ricardo Paleti were killed. In Indy cars, Gordon Smiley was killed during qualifying at Indianapolis, and Jim Hickman died in a race at Milwaukee only a week after the Indy 500.

Throughout major open-wheel racing -- Indy cars and Formula One -- drivers demanded safer cars. Engineers delivered, with bodywork that crushed and fragmented to absorb energy, lessening the shock on drivers' bodies.

From 1982 to 1994, a great lull in the dying came to Formula One and the top Indy car series, Championship Auto Racing Teams Inc. (CART).

But that lull was precisely what set the stage for the storm that opened the revolution against death in auto racing.

Senna's death stunned fans

If there ever was a driver who simply could not die in a race car, it was Ayrton Senna.

He was too precise, too near-superhuman with lightning reflexes, too laserlike in his focus. Quite simply, he was the best driver in the history of Grand Prix racing and, arguably, the best in any form of motor sports.

When young Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger was killed during practice for the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, Italy, it was a shock to the new generation of Formula One drivers, none of whom had experienced the death of a colleague.

Then came race day: May 1, 1994. Rising German star Michael Schumacher was following closely behind his idol and mentor, Senna.

Schumacher said Senna's car, a state-of-the-art Williams FW16, appeared "nervous" as it entered a corner.

Then it was gone.

It shot off the course, slamming into a high concrete retaining wall at more than 180 mph. When it bounced off the wall, Senna already was dead in the cockpit.

Williams team officials were prosecuted for culpable homicide by the Italian government, but they were acquitted.

Experts believe the car somehow "bottomed out," so that the front tires were lifted off the pavement just enough that they had no traction, leaving Senna unable to steer.

In any case, for all his brilliance, Ayrton Senna, at age 32 the Mozart of his profession, was a helpless passenger on the split-second ride to his end.

The cause of death was announced as penetration of Senna's brain by a piece of shrapnel that pierced his helmet. But experts believe he would have died anyway of the common culprit of modern-day motor-racing fatalities, basal skull fracture, caused by the violent whipping motion of his head and neck under high G-forces of the impact.

Senna's death was the highest-profile single fatality in the history of automobile racing.

The world had changed in the 12 years Formula One had gone without a fatality. Civilization had gone into a sea change against unnecessary death -- from quitting smoking to exercising to passenger-car safety. And F1 fans had become accustomed to all sport, no gore.

Now Formula One had two fatalities in rapid succession. And the nightmare wasn't over. Twelve days later, in the first practice for the next race, the Grand Prix of Monaco, Karl Wendlinger crashed and went into a coma.

The drivers' association, dormant since the days of Fittipaldi in the 1970s, was reactivated, and the revolution was on. It brought in retired driver Niki Lauda -- himself permanently disfigured from a fiery F1 crash in 1976 -- as spokesman.

Immediate and complete redesign of Formula One cars was ordered by the governing Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA). The "tubs," survival cells built into the chassis, would be drastically heightened to contain violent whipping of drivers' heads. Horsepower was reduced. Crash tests were mandated to ensure that cars deformed and/or disintegrated on impact for adequate dissipation of energy away from drivers' bodies.

Formula One, which in the days of Andretti and Fittipaldi had been the most dangerous motor sport in the world, was on its way to becoming the safest.

There hasn't been a driver fatality in Formula One since Senna.

NASCAR deaths rationalized

NASCAR also had two driver fatalities in 1994, both in its elite Winston Cup series and both at its showcase track, Daytona International Speedway. During practice sessions for NASCAR's biggest race, the Daytona 500, fun-loving veteran Neil Bonnett and rookie Rodney Orr died.

But there were easy rationales with which NASCAR drivers could write off the tragedies.

Bonnett had suffered brain-stem injuries in a crash in 1990 and had been out of action except for two races in '93. After he died, there were whispers that he shouldn't have been back in a race car -- that he suffered from cumulative effects of his head injuries and that his reflexes might have been dulled. And Orr was a not-ready-for-prime-time rookie; the Daytona 500 was too much, too soon.

Bonnett's rustiness and Orr's inexperience also fit well into another, larger rationale. There was an ongoing "tire war" in NASCAR between dominant Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and upstart Hoosier Tire, a racing specialty company based in Indiana. In a dangerous game of one-upmanship, the war escalated, with each tiremaker trying to design and manufacture faster tires than the other.

This contest had raged off and on since 1988 and involved considerable experimentation by both companies. Drivers constantly were frightened about racing on unproven tires.

Bonnett and Orr were on Hoosiers at Daytona in '94.

Veteran drivers who had tried the Hoosiers said they were fine. But if there was trouble, such as slight fishtailing, a rusty or inexperienced driver might not react quickly enough to take proper steering measures. Indeed, NASCAR announced the day Bonnett died that it suspected "driver error."

Later that year, rising NASCAR star Ernie Irvan nearly died at Michigan Speedway, suffering massive head and chest injuries in a crash caused by yet another tire failure, this time a Goodyear.

Irvan's team owner, Robert Yates, began calling for safer cars with less horsepower. Yates said the sides of Winston Cup cars were too rigid and needed to be more flexible to dissipate crash energy away from drivers' bodies. He asked for a cut from the then-peak horsepower of 730 to a maximum of 600.

But Yates was a solo voice in the macho world of NASCAR, where drivers still believed that things were "meant to be" and said, "It was just his time." Drivers clung to that. And NASCAR rolled on.

Meanwhile, CART began requiring electronic crash-data recorders on its cars in 1994, a milestone advance in the science of racing safety.

Since its inception in 1979, CART, a league founded largely by former drivers themselves, had been more proactive on safety than any other racing body in the world.

CART had its own medical and rescue staff, headed by a neurosurgeon, Dr. Steve Olvey of the University of Miami. CART also had one of the world's top orthopedic surgeons for racing injuries, Dr. Terry Trammell of Indianapolis, as a major consultant.

Olvey and Trammell worked regularly with racing engineers, studying data from crashes, redesigning cars, advancing safety features.

The 1996 death of little-known CART driver Jeff Krosnoff was something of a freak accident, as his car went airborne off a temporary street course in Toronto and his head hit a tree.

Scott Brayton, the Indy 500 pole-sitter, was killed in a crash May 17, 1996. He suffered a basal skull fracture as his car hit the wall during a practice run for the 500.

Three more years passed without a driver death. But then came the fall of 1999.

On Sept. 11, in a practice session at Laguna Seca Raceway near Monterey, Calif., rookie Gonzalo Rodriguez apparently lost control of his Penske-Mercedes, which shot straight off a turn and slammed nose-first into a barrier.

The first layer of the barrier was made of tires bound together; behind them was a concrete retaining wall. The car hit so hard it drove through the cushion, came to a sudden stop against the immovable wall, then vaulted, rear-over-front, over the wall.

Rodriguez, who suffered instant basal skull fracture, "bled out before he hit the ground," says Olvey, an attending physician at the scene. "Most of his blood volume was on the sign and the wall [over which the car vaulted]."

Where NASCAR had learned little from the fatal crashes of Bonnett and Orr and the near-fatal one of Irvan in '94 -- NASCAR had no crash data recorders on cars -- CART's recorders gathered enormous information for improvement after Rodriguez's death.

Rodriguez had died of classic basal skull fracture. CART for two years had been studying a device meant to prevent precisely that injury by restricting the whipping motion of drivers' heads -- even forward motion.

Head restraint takes stage

It was called the HANS, for "head and neck support," and had been around since 1991, developed by Dr. Robert Hubbard, a specialist in biomechanical engineering.

At first, it was too bulky for drivers to wear in the tight confines of open-cockpit Indy and Formula One cars. But in 1996, as part of Formula One's all-out war on driver fatalities, Mercedes-Benz engineer Hubert Gramling had seen enormous potential in Hubbard's device. With Hubbard as a consultant, Gramling began testing the device at Mercedes labs near Stuttgart, Germany. Together, they refined the HANS so it was small enough to be practical in open-cockpit cars.

After Rodriguez's death, CART experts created a computer model to be analyzed by Ford Motor Co. engineers. They had data from Rodriguez's crash recorder. They had specifications on the HANS. Melding all that information in the computer, they found that "mathematically, the HANS would have saved Gonzalo's life," Trammell says.

Just as they were pondering implementation of the HANS came the tragedy that turned CART's steady study of anti-fatality measures into all-out rush.

Gonzalez was a rookie. Greg Moore was something else entirely -- one of the elite fraternity, a proven veteran at age 24. He was an enormously competent driver, popular with U.S. fans and a major celebrity in his native Canada. And Moore was most beloved among his peers; he was the paddock prankster and instigator of virtually every party.

"When Greg got killed, I've never seen drivers that upset in all the years that I've been doing this," says Olvey, who has been CART's medical director since its inception. "We've got a highly intelligent group of drivers. They don't accept guys getting killed anymore -- especially when it's something that could have been prevented."

Intelligence, unfamiliarity with death and what experts call "small sample" or "cluster" statistics added up to heartsick outrage among CART drivers.

Moore's death, at California Speedway near Los Angeles on Oct. 31, 1999, amounted to CART's version of F1's nightmare.

"That's the nature of these rare events. You can go for years without them, and then they seem to appear suddenly," says Dr. John Melvin, a Detroit-based biomechanical engineer who is one of the world's leading authorities on racing safety. "The single occurrence, every so often, can sort of fail to get people's attention. But two close together can really get everybody's attention."

Though Moore suffered several lethal sets of injuries, including a broken neck, he also suffered a basal skull fracture. CART began moving with speed to make the HANS practical and to mandate it.

Moore's crash was the most violent in CART history. His car lost traction in the turbulent air roiling off other cars and skated into the infield grass. Had that infield area been paved, experts believe, he might have regained control or at least slid safely to a stop.

But on slick tires on slippery grass, Moore's car skated out of control, sideways. Then it tripped on a rough spot, lifted into the air and began barrel-rolling. Still, Moore might have survived -- except the car then slammed almost cockpit-first into a concrete retaining wall in the infield. The car bounced off the wall and began an even more violent series of rolls.

Moore was dead in the car. Repeated attempts by Olvey and other physicians to resuscitate him were unscuccessful.

In the off-season, CART moved rapidly. Roger Penske, then owner of California Speedway and its twin sister, Michigan Speedway, ordered immediate paving of the infield areas off the second turns of both tracks.

Studies of the HANS intensified, and two CART drivers, Michael Andretti and Christian Fittipaldi, volunteered to wear the HANS in testing and races.

On July 26, the HANS likely saved Christian Fittipaldi's life in a hard crash on the Chicago Motor Speedway oval. Within hours, CART's board of directors voted to make the HANS collar mandatory for its oval-track races in 2001.

But July 27, former driver Bobby Rahal, then CEO of CART, said in an interview that "irrespective of what we do to make cars safer, we can only do so much."

Attention must now turn, Rahal said, to energy-dissipating walls. "A concrete wall is good at one thing: restraining cars from going into crowds," he said. "But it is prehistoric in terms of its technology."

CART had little control over replacing the concrete wall Moore had hit at California Speedway. That track had been acquired by International Speedway Corp., which now owns or controls 13 major speedways in the United States. ISC is controlled by the France family of Daytona Beach, the family that also owns NASCAR outright.

Fatalities in each of NASCAR's top series -- Adam Petty in Busch Grand National on May 12, Kenny Irwin in Winston Cup on July 7 and Tony Roper in Craftsman Trucks on Oct. 15 -- left NASCAR standing alone while the open-wheel forms, under pressure, had reduced their fatalities to zero in 2000. And then in September, Greg Moore's family filed suit against International Speedway Corp. in a California court, charging wrongful death.

Petty was the towering surname that forced the issue this time. In one way, Adam Petty's death was not as profound as Senna's; in another way, it was even more profound. Unlike Senna, Adam Petty had won no championships, or even a major race. But unlike Senna, Adam Petty, at 19, was all bright hope, all enormous potential, the one anointed to take up the mantle of his grandfather, folk hero Richard Petty, NASCAR's winningest driver, with 200 career victories.

Adam was to be the next great Petty. But suddenly, Richard says, "everything we had planned for the next 20 years just . . . evaporated."

What Adam Petty might have accomplished, the heights to which he could have taken NASCAR popularity, never will be known. But like Senna in F1 and like Moore with CART, Petty's death may serve as an impetus for a safety push in NASCAR.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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