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Racing With Death : For the Drivers, Peril Lies Just Around a Corner

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Speed is their drug, racing provides the rush.

The potential peril that lies around every corner is pushed to the far reaches of the mind, eclipsed by the desire to push the pedal to the floor.

Race car drivers muster all their daring and verve to seek out The Edge--that narrow line of propelling a car as fast as it can go without flying off the track.

“It’s the only thing we know. It’s what we do for a living. It’s a must,” said NASCAR star Rusty Wallace, his voice unwavering, his conviction firm.

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On the other hand, that resolve is tested when a member of their fraternity goes over the edge. Speed is uncaring, unforgiving, indiscriminate. It can kill the best, like Formula One star Ayrton Senna. It can kill those far from the pinnacle of the sport, like stock car rookie Rodney Orr.

“Whenever I wake up, and I do a lot times in the middle of the night with bad dreams happening, I’m always totally out of control,” said Mario Andretti, who has seen friends die but survived to the point where he’s only four races away from retirement.

“Something happens and there’s nothing I can do about it. That’s the part that frightens me more than anything. Ayrton Senna was the best in the world, but there was nothing he could do about it.”

Still, Andretti has no thoughts of cutting short the final year of his racing career, even with all the tragedy that has rocked the sport in the last 16 months.

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“That’s the nature of the beast,” he said. “We’re trying to tame a demon, if you will. The race car can be a very lethal weapon. But that’s all part of the excitement, part of the lure that gets us going. If this thing was a piece of cake where anybody could do it, we wouldn’t be interested. We’d be in accounting or something.”

Formula One lost two drivers--including Senna, its brightest star--during one terrible weekend in May. Four Winston Cup drivers have died since April 1993--including two who perished in aviation accidents while flying to race tracks. And another top star, Ernie Irvan, was seriously injured last weekend in Michigan, his brain damaged, his best hope being a slow, painful recovery.

“I told my people, my wife, my team,” NASCAR’s Geoff Bodine said, “if something happens to me like it did to Ernie, go on, find somebody else and go on.

“If somebody has a factory and a guy dies of a heart attack, they don’t close the factory. If you have a football team and your quarterback is Joe Montana, and Joe Montana breaks his leg, you go on and play the game. It’s not barbaric. It’s just the way it needs to be.

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“We love the sport most of the time. Sometimes we hate it. I hated it (the day Irvan was hurt). It’s a love-hate thing most of the time. But you have to go on.”

The Andretti clan understands that. Mario’s oldest son, Michael, had a close call Wednesday when his Indy-car slammed into the wall during testing at Nazareth Speedway, sending him to the hospital with a concussion. It was one of those hate days that Bodine spoke about. But soon, they’ll be back to loving it, just as Mario and another son, Jeff, couldn’t resist the lure of speed after suffering serious injuries in the 1993 Indianapolis 500.

“It’s not easy,” said Wallace, who went on to finish fourth in the Winston Cup race that Bodine won--just a day after Irvan was critically injured in practice when he cut a tire and veered into a concrete wall at more than 170 m.p.h.

“It was on my mind the whole time,” Wallace said. “I drove three or four laps thinking about it. I would come to turn two and see that mark on the wall where he hit and I would think about it. I wish on Saturday night they had painted that wall so we didn’t have to look at it.”

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But Wallace never considered not racing. And if history is any indication, Irvan eventually will point his recovery toward one goal: getting back behind the wheel of the race car that nearly took his life.

Take Neil Bonnett, whose career appeared to be over after a 1990 crash left him with amnesia. He didn’t race for more than three years, but never lost hope of returning. He was plotting a comeback this year when he lost control of his car during a practice session at Daytona and plowed into the wall. In a matter of seconds, he was killed.

“I don’t even think about it,” said Wallace, discussing the specter of danger over the roar of the engines in Team Penske’s North Carolina garage. “I work as hard as I possibly can to take it out of my mind.”

Andretti doesn’t regard racing as being any more dangerous than other sports where speed or contact play an integral role. Athletes die on the football field, in the boxing ring, on the ski slope.

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“I’ll be watching a football game and a guy will land on his head and it’s like, ‘Oh my God, how close did he come to breaking his neck?”’ Andretti said. “There’s no worse injury than that. I think death would be better than that.”

Six deaths notwithstanding, Wallace insists the perils of racing have been exaggerated. He has walked away from two horrible crashes, further emboldening his belief that his car--and himself--are nearly indestructible.

“The danger is nothing like people think it is,” he said. “We’re talking about a couple of accidents happening. I don’t know how other teams have their cockpits fixed . . . but I know how I do my stuff. I feel confident in the way we do it.”

Nonetheless, the Irvan crash prompted everyone--Wallace included--to take a second look at how they were doing things. The Penske car builders already have asked “if there’s anything they can do to make it safer,” Wallace said. “They talked about padding the car more and more so you can take a wild wreck and still walk away.”

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Irvan’s crash hasn’t brought the kind of protests in Winston Cup that followed Senna’s death in Formula One, where spooked drivers suddenly realized if the best in the world could die, they certainly could, too. Tracks were redesigned to slow speeds. Cars were altered to provide more protection around the driver’s head.

Gerhard Berger, the Austrian who drives for Ferrari on the Formula One circuit, lost one of his closest friends when Senna died. A day earlier, fellow Austrian Roland Ratzenberger was killed while practicing.

“I was in the pit, watching the TV monitor, when Roland went off,” Berger told Nigel Roebuck of Autosport. “I could see them working on his heart and I knew the guy was dead. I was completely shocked and when I got to the motor home I was shaking.

“That was the moment when I said, “Think about this. You’ve had some success, and you’ve made good money out of it. For the rest of your life, you can have a smaller risk of hurting yourself. Maybe now is the time to stop.’

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“For 10 minutes, I sat there and then I concluded, no, I still love to drive racing cars, even if there is a risk.”

Max Mosley, president of the International Automobile Federation that sanctions F-1, would have expected nothing less.

“If you said to a racing driver, ‘There in front of you are two cars. One of them is very dangerous, one of them is very safe, but the dangerous one is 5 seconds lap quicker than the safe one, they would all without exception get into the dangerous one,” Mosley said. “You cannot expect racing drivers to be primarily interested in safety. That is the job of the people who run the races.”

“Unfortunately,” Andretti said, “we don’t react fast enough. We usually react after the fact. That’s always been one of my complaints as far as doing certain things in racing. Why do you do it now? Why didn’t you do it before?”

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Andretti continues to push oval tracks to install “energy-absorbing walls"--the kind of walls that may have lessened Irvan’s injuries, or kept Bonnett and Orr alive when they crashed three days apart while practicing for the Daytona 500.

“I think it’s going to come,” Andretti said, “but it’s not going to come soon enough. We’ll just have to suffer through it.”

While the Senna crash is still under investigation, the book already has been closed on Irvan’s wreck. NASCAR took one day to rule that Irvan’s car apparently ran over something on the track that punctured the right front tire.

At least the other drivers know what happened to Irvan. The cause of both the Bonnett and Orr wrecks is still listed as “inconclusive,” said NASCAR spokesman Kevin Triplett, who defended the organization’s investigative procedures in the wake of a newspaper report that found only one fatal crash out of eight in the past two decades had been thoroughly probed.

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“There’s a thousand elements involved in any crash,” Triplett said. “Every human reacts differently, so you’ve got another thousand elements involved. It’s just impossible to reconstruct what occurred first and in what order.”

Wallace seems fully satisfied with NASCAR’s process for investigating wrecks. He believes the major problem in Winston Cup is the re-emergence of Hoosier Tires on a circuit that once was the exclusive domain of Goodyear. Competition between the two companies, he fears, can only lead to faster--and less reliable--tires.

“I think the tire war sucks,” he said. “The drivers would not have to worry about being outrun by faster tires if we all had equal tires. . . . The competition should come down to having a little stronger engines, building your body a little better than the next guy. Instead, we’ve got to compete with the compounds on the other tires. The cars have gotten so quick it’s unbelievable, but to be in the sport you have to do it.”

Wallace is still bitter about the death of Bonnett, who took his final ride on two pairs of Hoosiers. “That will never leave my mind,” he said. “Deep in my heart, I think the tire thing had a lot to do with that. If there hadn’t been a tire war, that wouldn’t have happened.”

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Hoosier insists its tire is safe. Besides, Irvan was on Goodyears when he crashed, although there was no evidence that the tire failed. There also was no evidence that Bonnett died because he was using Hoosiers.

In the end, the drivers continue to test the limits of speed. And some will die--no matter how many steps are taken to make the sport safer.

“This may sound cold, but I always say it’s like going to work and seeing a neighbor in a car accident,” Andretti said. “It doesn’t mean you’re going to walk to work the next day. You keep going and hope it doesn’t happen to you.”


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