The Clock Is Ticking

You could see this one coming.

When NASCAR officials started talking a couple of years ago about their plan to sell the television rights to Winston Cup racing in a bundled package for huge amounts of cash, the dye was cast.

The current uproar over the quest by the Orlando Sentinel to examine autopsy photos of the late Dale Earnhardt seems almost preordained.

I’ve spent more than 20 seasons around NASCAR, and have called many Cup and BGN events both on radio and television. I believe I know how NASCAR has long operated, and how it has thrived.

The sanctioning body’s formula for success is one that every other racing series organizer would love to be able to buy and use. But one key tenet of that formula is simple: Keep your own counsel... and keep your mouth shut.

As one Charlotte Observer columnist put it a few days ago, “NASCAR operates on a need-to-know basis... and unless you work for NASCAR, you don’t need to know.”

But major news operations don’t accept that approach. No respectable media organization accepts that approach when real news (not just reporting who wins and who gets fired) breaks out.

I pointed this out to a key NASCAR official a couple of years ago, when the TV deal was just a dream. That NASCAR official, as I recall, really didn’t respond to the point I was making. He kept his mouth shut.

So this clash over the investigation into Earnhardt’s death, and the ongoing debate over driver safety, shouldn’t come as a shock to any of us who love and work in the sport. Nor should it surprise fans.

As a 25-year veteran member of the news media, many of them as a television news anchor, I’ve witnessed and participated in many debates over news media access to public and private records.

I come down firmly on the side of the media in this case... and in virtually all such situations.

No one doubts Teresa Earnhardt’s motives in trying to keep the autopsy photos sealed. One can only imagine the grief and heartache she must be dealing with, while trying to continue operating a large motorsports business.

My heart is with her, but I believe the Sentinel will act responsibly in using the photos.

They’ve pledged not to publish or copy them. And while it’s reasonable to expect other news organizations might make similar freedom-of-information requests, I believe proper safeguards can ensure that the photos don’t end up in the hands of ghouls who would try to use them for some sort of profit.

I do believe the Sentinel can bring tremendous resources to bear in conducting its own investigation into the cause of Mr. Earnhardt’s death.

A forensic pathologist, for example, or a specialist in head injuries, could discover key information that NASCAR might never see fit to provide. Anything that can advance the now-public debate over driver safety might well save the life of your favorite driver in the months ahead, and that’s a good thing.

That’s how responsible journalism is supposed to work.

Some good things have started to come from all of this. Drivers by the dozen are ordering and using the HANS device. It’s not a cure-all, but it obviously improves a driver’s margin of safety in a hard frontal wreck.

We’re hearing NASCAR may mandate bigger side window openings in Busch and Cup cars soon, to help drivers wearing the HANS get out of the race car. And there are indications that a soft-wall breakthrough could be at hand.

Maybe the biggest change that could come lies in the cars themselves. One top crew chief gave me a tour of his team’s shop and cars in the days right after Daytona. He told me the cars are approximately 50 percent stiffer in the front now, than they were just a few years ago. Stiffer race cars transmit much more of the shock of a hard impact right back to the
driver. Drivers often can't survive such a hard hit.

But a more flexible car, one that crushes just a bit in front, can be mandated. NASCAR did it several years ago with their touring Modified division in the Northeast, after a couple of the series' biggest stars perished in wrecks not unlike what we've seen in the past 10 months.

Meantime, the silence from NASCAR is deafening.

The sanctioning body has it within its grasp to quiet the uproar. Let the Orlando Sentinel move forward with its own probe into the Earnhardt wreck, and at the same time let's hear that NASCAR does know what went wrong inside the No. 3 car February 18th.

And that even more critically, NASCAR is setting up a formal Driver's Safety task force, with the help of the Detroit manufacturers who have access to some incredible research and technology.

The clock is ticking.

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