No Harm No Foul

HAMPTON, Ga. – As always, safety becomes an issue when disaster strikes. That’s not just in NASCAR. That’s one of the attributes that separates we humans from civilized creatures.

A dolphin can take a hint. A man has to be hit over the head with a sledge hammer. Or he has to go flying through the air and land head-first on the asphalt.

In last week’s Pennzoil 400 in Homestead, Fla., a pit road accident seriously injured a pit crew member, and it was damned fortunate no one got killed.

The situation has been dangerous for a long time now, but as usual, it took a disaster to get anything done. Or even to get people started talking about getting something done. In NASCAR, the ruling is almost always, “No harm, no foul.”

The knee-jerk reaction would seem to be requiring every pit-crew member to wear a helmet, shoulder pads, hip pads, a flak jacket, elbow pads, knee pads, specially designed asphalt sneakers and fireproof coveralls.

Such unwieldy wear would no doubt make 14.14-second pit stops a thing of the past. The crewmen would look like astronauts on the moon instead of finely-conditioned athletes. Changing four tires and dumping in two cans of fuel might take as long as 25 seconds. (No! Say it ain’t so!)

Before we turn the Bolshoi Ballet into a wrestling match between the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Michelin Man, let’s look at the past. Before we determine where we’re going, let’s peer back at where we’ve been.

Until 1991, of course, there were no speed limits on pit road, and I remember the first time I ever watched a race from behind the pit wall. It was Darlington in 1981, and here is one compound sentence that describes what I learned that day:

“Anybody can drive around a race track, but it takes a driver to get in and out of the pits.”

Damndest thing I ever saw.

The Cale Yarboroughs and the Darrell Waltrips of the world were diving into the pits wide-open. Flying down the lane. Skidding into the pit stalls. Burning rubber on the way out.

By the end of the Southern 500 that year, I was surprised no one had been killed and glad it wasn’t I. All I actually got was a bruise from a lug nut plinking off one of my shins. And I was behind the wall.

Eventually, someone did get killed, right here at Atlanta Motor Speedway (then an international raceway by name), in 1990.

So speed limits were adopted. They’re still being used. Why has it gotten so dangerous again?

Naturally, the way to go about examining the current situation is to define what happened then and what has happened now.

Comparing pit stops in 1990 to pit stops now is like comparing apples and oranges, or maybe manifolds and carburetors.

The reason for the danger now is that, so many times, the pit lane is overcrowded. A lot of officials at NASCAR would have us believe this is because the level of competition has gotten so much higher that there are more brave drivers jousting each other on every single lap and, in this case, every single pit stop.

It’s not true.

Back in those days, as Benny Parsons noted, there was no opening and closing of pit road. As soon as the yellow flag waved, the drivers hightailed it to the pits.

“All 43 cars, not just the cars on the lead lap, pitted at one time in those days,” said Parsons. “But, since the cars didn’t have to wait a lap or two for the pits to be opened, they came in as quickly as possible.

“Not all of them entered the pits at one time, though. One of the problems then was that it made it very difficult for the pace car to pick up the leader.”

Another problem now is the fact that there are 43 cars in every race. And all the pit stalls are on one side of the track, at least at every track except Bristol.

“The biggest problem is the number of cars,” said Wally Dallenbach, Parsons’ NBC broadcast mate. “As a driver, I did my share of clipping people under those conditions, and I had my share of being clipped. Unless you make the pit stalls bigger, that’s always going to be a problem.”

If each car didn’t have to crawl around the track behind the pace car for a full lap, while the pit lanes are closed, all of them would not be so bunched when they hit pit road.

Another factor is that there are so many more cars on the lead lap these days, and that’s not just a consequence of there being so many well-funded teams.

When the speed limits were instituted, NASCAR took the liberty of changing rules and making it easier for teams to get back up front. The cars that are a lap down start on the inside (i.e., usually superior) line, and then there’s that “tail end of the lead lap” policy that lets slower cars actually start in front of the leaders.

And, of course, the common practice of the leader “letting” cars, especially teammates, back on the lead lap was practically non-existent in those days.

All this stuff comes into play here.

See, the first reaction is always to say, “How can we keep doing it the way we’re already doing it?”

Well, we’ve got helmets. We’ve got fireproof suits. Never mind that they were designed for drivers not tire changers.

We ought to be examining the fundamental way it is being done. In this case, the edge of establishing pit road speed limits, the ones that many drivers actually obey, has been undercut by allowances that undercut the gains in safety that the speed limits were supposed to allow.

There are now more cars on the tracks. There are more cars on the lead lap. Those cars all head down pit road at the same time, causing traffic jams as they skid to a halt and then burn rubber coming out.

Furthermore, some of these problems have been caused not by an increase in the level of competition, although that is a factor, but by changes in what was allowed to take place in the pits.

Two steps forward, then one step back. The next thing you know, it’s one step forward, two steps back.

The next thing you know, pit road is dangerous again.

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