NASCAR safety a hot topic after tragic season
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- Brett Bodine won't crank up his race car until he straps a device that looks like a toilet seat around his neck. It's as much a part of his apparel as the helmet and firesuit.
"We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to make the car go faster," Bodine says. "To not look at safety the same way we look at performance seems pretty stupid to me."
Bodine is probably in the minority, though. For most NASCAR drivers, there's not much room inside the car for talk of safety and its accompanying emotion: fear.
They come to the track with the bravado of teenagers, firmly convinced that mayhem at 200 mph only happens to the other guys.
That attitude goes hand-in-hand with a sanctioning body reluctant to do more than suggest to its drivers better ways to keep themselves alive.
Dale Earnhardt still competes in an open-face helmet, looking not much different than those who raced decades ago. He's more comfortable that way.
Ditto for Dave Marcis, who presses the pedal in wing-tipped shoes more suited for church than the track.
Heck, Randy Lajoie can find nothing in the rules even requiring him to wear a helmet, although he wouldn't be foolish enough to race without one.
"It's the drivers' responsibility to look after himself," Kyle Petty said. "We don't want communism."
Those words from a man who lost his 19-year-old son, Adam, in a crash last year. The younger Petty was one of three drivers killed during one of the most tragic years for NASCAR, bursting the aura of invincibility surrounding these 3,500-pound machines.
Last month, NASCAR brought in renowned safety expert John Melvin to counsel the teams and show crash-test footage that left even the most hardened drivers a bit shaken.
This month, Bob Hubbard was a familiar presence around the garage at Daytona. Hubbard, a biomechanics professor at Michigan State University, spent nearly 20 years helping develop the Head And Neck Safety (HANS) device.
The lightweight, U-shaped brace will be worn by Bodine, defending race champion Dale Jarrett and perhaps a half-dozen other drivers in the 43-car field for Sunday's Daytona 500. Never before have so many drivers worn the device, which was used in several races last year.
Two plastic flaps fit snugly against the upper torso, connected by a piece that wraps around the neck. Two small straps attach the device to the driver's helmet. The idea is to limit the amount of movement at the most vulnerable point of the body: the neck and base of the skull.
"In a crash, you want to keep your head on top of your torso," Hubbard said. "It's so simple that when I explain it to grade-school children, they understand."
While the HANS system has stirred up plenty of discussion among the drivers, there's been no frenzied rush to get fitted before the race at one of NASCAR's fastest tracks.
"We've got to learn more about it before we go racing with it," said three-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon.
Many drivers complain that the device is too cumbersome and bulky for a comfortable ride. Hubbard and his partner, Jim Downing, have made significant strides in reducing the size, but some drivers are still reluctant to make the necessary adjustments inside their seats, harness and headrests.
"I like the HANS," said Lajoie, a star on the Busch Grand National series. "You're probably a darn fool if you don't wear one. But it's got to be second nature."
For Lajoie, it's not. He can run only a few laps before the collar begins to annoy him, distracting him from more important matters. He was still working with Hubbard during the week, trying to find an alignment that felt comfortable.
The HANS isn't the only word that has invaded the racing lexicon. Softer walls are in the testing stages and automatic engine shutoffs have been installed on all cars.
"We never discourage anything that enhances safety," said Kevin Triplett, NASCAR's director of operations. "But you're caught in between. You're trying to slow them down, and they're trying to go as fast as they can."
In fairness to NASCAR, significant steps have been taken to improve safety, from fuel cells that virtually eliminated the devastating fires that used to plague the sport, to sturdy roll cages that allow drivers to walk away when the rest of their car is torn to shreds.
"When I first started running, we didn't even have seat belts," said Richard Petty, who began his Winston Cup career in 1958.
But the organization also invites criticism by refusing to get specific about its initiatives, failing to hire a full-time medical staff that goes from track to track and moving sluggishly to impose new safety rules - when they are imposed at all.
Last weekend, NASCAR kingpin Bill France Jr. said protecting fans was every bit as important as the safety of the drivers -- maybe even more important.
Indeed, NASCAR moved with unprecedented haste to slow speeds at the fastest tracks after Bobby Allison's car nearly flew into a crowded grandstand at Talladega, Ala., in 1987.
On the other hand, there is no rush to follow the CART open-wheel series, which already has mandated the HANS system for oval-track races this year. By next year, the Formula One series is expected to follow suit.
Triplett scoffs at those who say NASCAR is falling behind.
"The cars are very different," he said. "Just because one sanctioning body requires it doesn't mean we should require it."
Already, NASCAR has ordered its teams to install a switch on the steering wheel that allows a driver to shut down his engine if the throttle sticks, a problem blamed for the crashes that killed Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin last year.
Bodine doesn't believe that's going far enough. He installed an engine shut-off on his car that recognizes a jammed throttle when he lifts his foot off the accelerator.
NASCAR conducted a private test at New Hampshire International Speedway to try out a foam-filled wall in place of the concrete barrier where Petty and Irwin died. But there are worries that a soft wall might spray more debris on the track, causing more problems than it solves.
"The first test did not go well," Triplett said. "We're still trying to learn from that."
NASCAR is adamant about moving at its own pace to impose safety rules, and most drivers seem satisfied that the series is doing all it can.
"If the drivers don't take steps to protect themselves," said Kyle Petty, who has more reason to complain than most, "NASCAR isn't going to do it for us."
Hubbard is convinced that Adam Petty, Irwin and Tony Roper -- who died in a truck crash at Texas Motor Speedway -- would have survived if they had been wearing the HANS.
Kyle Petty merely shakes his head when he hears those claims.
"That's way too simplistic," he said. "Nothing is fail-safe. It's like flying on an airplane. There's things they can do to make the odds better. But the danger is always going to be there."