Wheeler Others Losing Patience

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CONCORD, N.C. -- Blaise Alexander’s death last Thursday night in an ARCA RE/MAX Series race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway has renewed the discussion of safety in stock cars.

Track president and general manager H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler reacted angrily this weekend, saying the time for action had come.

“I have lost patience with the people in this industry who are dragging their feet,” Wheeler said. “I‘m sick of it. I’m tired of it. Things have got to get going. The gloves are off. I’m tired of it.”

Some Winston Cup drivers, however, said there’s as much being done in the area of safety as possible. Jeff Burton, perhaps the most safety conscious driver in the Winston Cup garage, said people are working hard to improve safety.

“From where we were at this point last year, we’re in a hell of a lot different spot,” Burton said. “We’ve got a lot more people, a lot more effort, a lot more energy, a lot more willingness from the drivers and car owners to make it better. I see progress. I see energy and effort being put into it. If I didn’t see energy and effort, then I would be disheartened.”

Other drivers agreed with Burton. Yes, there’s plenty of work to be done. But the cars are as safe as they can be – for the time being.

“When it’s going to happen is never going to be quick enough for us,” Jeff Gordon said. “We wanted it yesterday or months ago. It takes time, unfortunately, to develop these things and properly test them.”

“The problem solving generally comes many steps after you’ve tried to figure a problem out,” Burton said.

That’s too late for Wheeler.

“We need to stop all this ‘working stuff and do it,” Wheeler said. “If Banjo Matthews (former NASCAR team owner and driver) were alive, this problem would’ve been solved. He just did it. It was deeds, not words.

“We’ve had enough words. What we need now are deeds. We have a moral, ethical responsibility of the highest levels to solve this problem now.”

Who is going to solve it? Is it up to NASCAR? The car owners, outside safety engineers, or drivers?

“Safety years ago was this macho thing,” Burton said. “It was like, ‘I don’t need that (stuff). I’m tougher than that.'

“That’s stupid. It’s really stupid. When you see these things happen, and you don’t go and make an effort to make this stuff safer, you’re a little whacked.”

Michael Waltrip said he felt like he owed it “to my wife and my kids and myself” to have the best safety equipment.

“I want it all,” Waltrip said. “If they come out with something new, I want to see what it is.”

Ultimately, the driver has to sit in the car. And safety-conscious drivers have to make the right choices.

“When you sit in your race car, stuff’s got to be right,” Burton said. “We’re all going to wreck. We’re all going to wreck hard. The more good stuff you have, the better chance you have.

“If I didn’t feel I was out there trying to help myself, if I didn’t feel NASCAR was out there trying to make things better, if I didn’t feel comfortable with what was going on, then I wouldn’t have come (to the track). It’s my choice, my decision to do what I want to do.

“Can we do things better than we’re doing? Certainly we can.”

Burton said a much of the new safety initiatives – like a carbon-fiber seat – are in their infancy. Still, drivers have to be smart and do everything they can to have the latest updates. And a HANS or Hutchens device has to be mandatory, perhaps not by NASCAR, but by the drivers.

“You have to understand that this is dangerous,” Burton said. “It’s disheartening to think that there’s anybody here at the race track that doesn’t have everything we know is better for them. That’s disheartening.”

“I have listened to the engineers, to the people who understand what happens to the human body in a crash, I have witnessed a lot of crash testing. I believe what I have in my car that I am safer than the guys who have recently passed away. They didn’t have substantial head supports, they were not wearing a HANS or Hutchens system.”

Alexander wasn’t wearing any head-and-neck support system.

“That was a tragic thing that happened the other night,” Jeff Gordon said. “My first question was: Did he have a head-and-neck restraint system? When I heard no, I was devastated for him and his family. I could not believe there are still people getting in cars without it.”

But those devices aren’t the only answer, Wheeler said.

“There’s a false sense of security with the HANS device, with the seats,” Wheeler said. “We have made progress with that stuff. But the fact of the matter is the front end of these cars is too stiff.”

Some believe the cars have become too rigid in the front, taking away “crush” from the cars. Instead of the front ends absorbing energy, the energy is transferred backwards – to the driver.

It is it? Burton recently restored the car he won his first Winston Cup race in, an old Ronnie Hopkins chassis.

“I looked at that car the other day, and it looks like my cars today,” Burton said. “I don’t know that the chassis have gotten stiffer.”

“People got on that bandwagon,” Waltrip said. “Not being critical, but people (in the media) heard some cat say, ‘The cars are getting too stiff.’ ‘Oh, that’s what it is. The cars are getting too stiff.’

“Correct me if I’m wrong: (there is a) five percent, at the most, difference in the cars now than five years ago.”

Burton said the cars are “stiffer when you twist them in a lateral sense” but drivers don’t crash laterally.

“I just don’t understand why all this has happened in the last year and a half,” Ken Schrader said. “These cars have been changing quite a bit, but they haven’t done it all in the last year and a half. I’ve thought a lot about it and I just don’t see it.”

When he crashes, Burton said, “everything is bent all to hell” in the car. Maybe the cars aren’t stiff enough.

“If we’re going to build a car that’s takes more energy, we’ve got to build them stiffer,” Burton said.

But even Burton admitted that with “what we saw (Thursday with Alexander’s crash), we need to see something different.”

Perhaps the “Humpy Bumper?” Wheeler commissioned a composites company to build something to absorb energy, and Paul Lew of Lew Composites in Las Vegas came up with a unidirectional-graphite bumper that is bolted into the front clip of race cars.

Lew claims it reduces impact force by up to 50 percent.

“That bumper is ready to go right now,” Wheeler said. “It should be in every car running.”

“This is not rocket science. There is nothing between the right-front fender and the frame rail except air.”

Space inside the race car is another issue. Many years ago, there was more than a foot between the driver and the roll bars on the driver’s side. Now, the drivers are up against the door bars.

“The cars are too small,” Burton said. “There’s no question about that.”

“That happened over time, and it made me mad,” Waltrip said. “I got in my car, and I couldn’t even fit in it. I went to NASCAR and said, ‘We have got to do something.’

“That’s not the reason why we’ve had these incidents over and over again. I’ve never seen a wreck as violent as the one I saw (Thursday). I saw one that was equally as scary when I watched Tony Roper hit. I was behind Kenny Irwin when he hit.

“Those cars hit the wall harder than I’ve seen any cars hit the wall. The result is all the same, so obviously there’s a trend there. But circumstances made Tony Roper and Blaise (Alexander) hit the wall harder – I couldn’t believe what I saw.”

Five drivers – Alexander, Dale Earnhardt, Irwin, Roper and Adam Petty – have all died in strikingly similar accidents. Yes, safety initiatives have come to the forefront in NASCAR. Perhaps not fast enough some people’s liking, but things are improving.

Still, five deaths in 17 months is extremely alarming.

“It’s not coincidence, is it?” Burton said. “If I had a farm, and I had animals getting out of a gate, I’d figure out how to get that gate shut.”

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