Icommentary:/I The Lone Voice

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H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler is nothing if not a thoughtful observer of stock-car racing. He may be the best spokesman the sport has ever produced. He has a knack for making remarks that get to the heart of the matter, regardless of what happens to be the burning issue.

Wheeler also happens to work for a company, Speedway Motorsports, Inc., that is involved in what is essentially a cold war with NASCAR's satellite state, International Speedway Corporation. NASCAR/ISC - yes, Virginia, they are one entity, regardless of what they and their lawyers say - rather resents Wheeler's daring to speak out on important matters, which seems odd since its own mouthpieces have proved rather inept at something that comes so naturally to Wheeler.

So each time Wheeler holds his press conferences or sits down with the media, one can sense the snooty distaste of NASCAR operatives in the room.

"Well, who the hell made Humpy Wheeler the authority on everything?"

Short answer: You did.

I can't speak for everyone who lives in Daytona Beach, but everyone who works for NASCAR and lives in either Daytona or one of Big Bubba's frontier outposts has begun using the language of paralysis. Nothing they say means anything anymore.

They've got more works in progress than the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. I don't know when the end of the day is, but NASCAR is apparently planning to definitively explain soft walls, rigid chassis, Earnhardt's crash, creation and the human genome in one fell swoop.

In other words, they've got a lot of explaining to do. The fictional NASCAR concept of "the end of the day" is not unlike the biblical concept of "Judgment Day," and all indications are that the two just may arrive at the same time.

So what I'm saying is, we all flock to Humpy because Humpy still speaks undiluted English. The best one can hope from NASCAR is that one of its operatives may sneak up alongside and whisper a few words, strictly off the record, of course.

While Wheeler would not specifically discuss any reservations he may or may not have about this weekend's races at Talladega, last week he did weigh in articulately on the safety issues, and contrary to what NASCAR's finest have to say about him, Wheeler actually gave the authoritarians on the other side of the wall the benefit of several doubts.

"I know a lot of people are real impatient with NASCAR, but I can say there is a tremendous amount going on behind the scenes," Wheeler said. "Some of it is NASCAR, and some of it isn't. I think the things that are going to correct this whole situation are going to come from NASCAR and the industry itself. There is a lot of work going on in the industry. I've spent a lot of my own time since February looking at different aspects of this whole thing, and I believe right now there are four key elements to solving the problem.

“The objective in solving this problem, as I’ve said before, is to do everything we can to eliminate lethal accidents. I don't think we are ever going to be able to eliminate injuries because it's a high-speed sport and it’s a contact sport. But I really believe with the tremendous amount of technology that's out there today, the tremendous amount of materials that are out there today, that we can eliminate the lethal aspect of this sport."

Wheeler sees four primary areas of improvement that can be made in the cars: seats, driver restraints, head-and-neck restraints and frontal chassis rigidity.

"Seats," Wheeler noted, "have not been a big deal in stock-car racing for a long time because the drivers sit in a upright position. Until people started breaking legs and collarbones, not a lot was done in the area of seats. But we’ve made a lot of improvements in seats, and you are going to see a lot of interesting ones show up in the next two months.

"The second thing is, I think going to a six-point harness will help a great deal because, when you put the harness and the seat together with a HANS-type device, what we've got to do is keep the driver's head and torso moving at the same speed.

“The thing we are fighting here with basal skull fractures is the whiplash effect on the neck. A HANS-type device, combined with the seat improvements and a six-point harness, I think is going to get us awfully close to where we want to be.

"I do think there is a fourth area where a lot of work is going on right now and that is to further increase the shock absorption of a wall hit, particularly with the right front. Things are being looked at right now, including aluminum honeycomb, which has a tremendous ability to absorb shock. If you had an aluminum honeycomb in the right front of the car, say from where the air box is to the radiator, all the way around, I think we could increase the shock-absorbing ability of these cars pretty tremendously, perhaps as much as 20 percent or maybe even higher than that. There is also something called aluminum foam. It's made in Canada, and it's used by NASA right now in the bulkheads of spacecraft. Carbon fiber, of course, has always proven it's a great absorber of shock with IRL and CART."

Maybe there's nothing that earthshaking about what Wheeler had to say, but at least he had something to say. He is within the industry to which he makes reference.

The NASCAR response to the issues cited above would have been, "Well, this may be true or that may be true. How do you know we're not looking into this? In fact, we may or may not be looking into both this and that, or neither this nor that, or perhaps, this, that and even more, far beyond the ability of simple non-NASCAR man to know or comprehend. Just remember this: We alone know what we are doing. Everything is a work in progress that has been going on for the past 52 years, and at the end of the day, we're going to let all of you know that our conduct has been truly exemplary.

"Any more questions?"

I almost nodded off just writing the fictional remarks included above.

Finally, to the suggestion that perhaps Wheeler can somehow discuss such topics more easily because he is an outsider and because he is somehow not bound by the overwhelming "responsibilities" of the ruling body, let me offer one comparison.

Wheeler has had some rather damning issues with which to deal. The track of which he is president, Lowe's Motor Speedway, has seen its share of tragedy. There were the spectator deaths that resulted from an Indy Racing League crash there in 1999, and the collapse of a spectator bridge at the track last year. I was in California when the IRL disaster occurred, but I was at the speedway on the night of the 2000 Winston when the bridge collapsed.

There is not one iota of doubt in my mind that, had Kenny Irwin or Dale Earnhardt been killed at Lowe's Motor Speedway, the incidents would have been handled better, and the only obstacle in Wheeler's path would have been the unenlightened hippopotami of NASCAR.

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