NASCAR Drivers Needed in Setting Safety Standards

THE WASHINGTON POST

Driver safety is just that--driver safety. NASCAR can hire all the biomechanical specialists it wants, but when it comes to running a racecar into a wall at 160 miles per hour, or barrel rolling it, or catching it on fire, the only real expert is the man behind the wheel. "Drivers are the only ones who've felt it," driver Geoffrey Bodine says. Which is why a driver safety committee is what's needed in NASCAR, not another report by scientists.

Devices, rather than drivers, dominate the report released by NASCAR this week on the death of Dale Earnhardt, from little black boxes to head and neck restraints. NASCAR spent six months and $1 million examining the crash that led to Earnhardt's death. But while the report is thorough and well intentioned, it is an ultimately arid and meaningless scientific treatise in which Earnhardt is referred to as "the vehicle occupant." It offers few practical solutions for how to make the sport immediately safer. Instead it promises further study.

The fact is, no amount of technical discussion, of gear ratios, vehicle occupants, restrictor plates, tire stagger, and roll cages, can approximate what happens when men and steel and cement collide. Bodine, who is still trying to regain his Winston Cup career after a horrific truck crash at Daytona a year and a half ago, says, "Unfortunately, the best tests are the real ones."

But bring up the phrase "driver safety committee" among NASCAR drivers and there is a funny silence. When they do talk, it's a hesitating, hedging kind of talk. "That's a controversial topic," says Bodine, who will not endorse one. "Very controversial." The reason for this is that a driver safety committee would smack of organized labor, something the old NASCAR guard resists. Hence, there is no organized way in which drivers can communicate with each other about which devices work and which don't, or to trade ideas.

Many drivers, including superstar Jeff Gordon, quietly believe safety information could be traded and disseminated among NASCAR drivers in a better and more comprehensive way. For the moment, safety measures are adopted informally. There is no better example of this than the fact that before Earnhardt's death, few Winston Cup drivers wore head and neck restraints, because they were not required. Forty-one out of 43 wore them in a race a week ago. "We have to join together," Gordon says, though he stops short of supporting a committee. "We know what works in our surroundings ... What we really want is just to share information, we want out voices to be heard, and we want them to respond back. All we want is for the sport to grow and be safe." According to Gordon, the NASCAR report was the most sincere effort to date by NASCAR to bring the drivers into safety discussions, but it has yet to be done on a collective basis. "They've seemed to shy away from doing it in large groups," he says.

NASCAR is an anomaly: it's not a traditional league. It's a family business still owned by heirs of founder Bill France Sr. -- "Big Bill" -- and run by Mike Helton, a longtime NASCAR executive, who essentially functions as a benevolent dictator. If a driver has a complaint, he simply goes into the NASCAR trailer and voices it -- if he isn't too intimidated by the France family, something Gordon says has been a problem.

The sport remains awash in old prejudices, against computer technology, and against unions. And a driver safety committee would smack of each. "You have anything to say, you just go to that (NASCAR) truck and bitch," driver Jimmy Spencer says. "We don't need no committee. I don't want to have to vote for someone to speak for me."

NASCAR has historically left safety up to the individual drivers. Even the rulebook makes it clear that safety is basically the driver's own business. It states: "All members (drivers) assume full responsibility for any and all injuries sustained including death and property damage, any time they are in the racing areas, or en route there to or there from. Each member acknowledges that the member's spouse and next of kin have been advised that the member understands the high risk of serious injury or death which may result from racing, and that the members solely assumes all such risk."

It's written in capital letters.

In Formula One and Indy Car racing, driver safety committees have wrought important changes to protect drivers. When Ayrton Senna was killed, Formula One drivers worked to alter unsafe conditions at the track in Italy where he crashed. Indy car drivers banned together and refused to race at the Texas Speedway after a number of them got vertigo from the high speeds. NASCAR drivers have no such advocacy group.

A driver safety committee could be a venue in which the racers could discuss new designs, which devices work and which don't. They could trade first hand information on testing and research and development, and share it with the NASCAR administration. "Leaving us out is a mistake," Gordon says.

Bodine, for instance, uses a seat of his own design that he calls "high impact energy absorbing," with fiberglass springs that he says give him added protection in case of a wall wreck. "I've been in several really bad wrecks, I've hit walls at sharp angles at high speeds, I've done it all, and walked away and gone home, and I know that seat has saved me from being injured and saved my life," he says.

Mike Skinner is racing at Bristol Motor Speedway this week using his left foot to brake, because his right leg is still bashed up from a wreck in Chicago several weeks ago. He's got a bad ankle and a torn ACL, among other things. "I've been in some terrible crashes, I've had at least four front tires blow, and I've taken a sharp angle hit into a wall, and I can definitely vouch for the head and neck restraint as a major plus," he says. "I'm no professor by any means, but when it comes to this stuff I've got a lot of experience."

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