Safety Reigns Supreme: How To Keep Drivers Alive And Well

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In the last three months, NASCAR has incurred two fatalities and had two drivers withdraw from competition due to head injuries. Some call it coincidence, others say NASCAR needs to step up its safety procedures.

NASCAR, along with tracks, teams and manufacturers, has taken a pro-active stance in remedying the situation following the lost of Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin. On a continual basis, these factions search for areas under their own jurisdiction to improve precautionary measures. Nevertheless, with the latest rash of incidents, expect the changes to come more swiftly.

Before the Brickyard, NASCAR officials announced a rules modification for Winston Cup teams "that their primary and secondary throttle shafts must each have an independent travel stop to impede the throttle plates from opening beyond vertical." In addition, teams must install an auxiliary ignition on/off button or "kill switch" upon the steering wheel that will disconnect power to the ignition system. If the crashes of Petty and Irwin were indeed caused by "hung" throttles, hitting this button could have killed the engine and perhaps given these drivers enough time to react.

On Saturday, two of NASCAR's top stars were absent from the Brickyard 400. Terry Labonte, NASCAR's "Ironman," ended his streak of 655 consecutive race starts that began more than two decades ago. Jeremy Mayfield, who like Labonte has attended every NASCAR event at the Brickyard since 1994, also missed the race despite having qualified fourth last Thursday. Both drivers had recently suffered from head injuries during crashes that prevented them from safely participating in competition.

"Maybe the tracks can do something with the walls, like they did at Watkins Glen," said Peter Sospenzo, Mayfield's crew chief. "It seemed to help Jimmy Johnson (when he crashed head-on into the Styrofoam barrier at the Lysol 200 in June). Maybe NASCAR or the tracks are going to have to address the drivers going through the corners. They're going faster and track records are getting broken every week. We at least have to make it safer for the drivers."

In their defense, NASCAR and track owners are also looking at different materials for walls that will soften the blow upon driver impact without "catching" the car or making it stop more suddenly. According to Winston Cup Series director Gary Nelson, NASCAR has been studying the wall issue for quite some time.

"The buzzword today is 'softwalls,'" Nelson said. "And we spent a lot of time several years ago looking at the pros and cons. Like anything, when we're the ones that ultimately make those kind of decisions, we want to make sure that we're not misinformed. We would like to address problems and solve the problems, but do not make a solution create other problems that maybe worse.

"We found that on road courses like Watkins Glen or Sears Point, a big stack of tires or a big block of styrofoam is great for the type of accidents where the car leaves the racetrack and goes into the barrier. The problem we have on the ovals is that the race track is right up against the concrete and in doing that there is a lot of contact with the wall that is done at a very slight angle. That slight angle type of collision into the wall -- or even just a scrape into the wall if it is soft -- will grab the car and 'suck it' into the wall because it stops so suddenly. Even though 99 percent of the contact with the wall at a typical race isn't even reported, each one of those could be a serious accident in our opinion. We've taken a real hard look at the content and how you could do something like that on an oval track and not cause a problem because most of the contact with the wall is at slight angles."

H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, president of Lowe's Motor Speedway, has evaluated several products that would be suitable for "safety" walls and is hoping to test these materials in the next two to three weeks. First, he needs to find a proper way to simulate a driver crashing at 130mph and then record the distribution of energy absorption.

"Obviously, we don't want to use a driver," Wheeler said. "But we need to find out what will happen upon impact. Will the car itself absorb the energy or the wall or a combination of the two together. It's an extremely expensive proposition. In the meantime, we don't want to overlook something as simple and common as Styrofoam."

Wheeler says the costs of these materials vary from $100 a foot to as much as $2000 a foot. For years, Lowe's has utilized a combination of tires and water-filled barrels as barriers, which Wheeler currently considers the best defense. He has also looked at a product currently being used by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But because each track is different, Wheeler doesn't expect the solution arrived at Lowe's to necessarily suit other facilities.

"Every track has its own characteristics," Wheeler said. "We're looking at our inside walls. That's we're most of our problems are because Lowe's is narrower than most speedways. Every track has a place or 'signature spot' for incidents. Ours is the inside wall coming off of Turn 4 and Turn 2, so that is where our concentration lies.

"The safest thing that we have going on right now is our highly experienced race car drivers. We don't want to introduce something foreign to the drivers and have it come back on the track. Any kind of interior or exterior protection has to be seamless as possible. I'm just glad that people are working on these precautions. I commend NASCAR for doing all they can."

As a car and track owner, Roger Penske has an interest in both sides of the safety issue. Not only has he watched his drivers get injured over the years, but also has seen fans get killed in his stands from crash debris. Penske agrees with Wheeler that the solution has to fit the track.

"I think there is a lot of things we can do depending upon what kind of racetrack it is," Penske said. "As you have these flatter racetracks -- the cornering part of the car, once it loses traction -- you don't have the banking to hold them. On the other hand, there has been talk on whether you can put tires in the corners or can you add some sort of safety material. I think Indianapolis has tried that. The issue becomes, does that material end up on the racetrack? Does it grab the car? There's a lot of things that have to be looked at, but I'm sure that safety acceleration is going to be key as we go forward. The same thing we've done with the fencing. It's an evolutionary process. Obviously, the most important thing is the safety of the driver and the spectator. We just have to keep working on it.

"You can look inside the cars at the neck braces that the drivers are wearing, I think that will help too," Penske said.

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