Safety must be addressed collectively

Posted: Thursday, March 29, 2001

FORT WORTH, Texas -- It's not in writing, and it's never been said on the record. But drivers on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series know that challenging the sanctioning body's authority is every bit as bad as using an illegal engine or tricked-up gasoline.

But when four drivers die in a four-month stretch, inhibition is quickly lost in myriad questions and doubt. All of a sudden, drivers are talking about safety.

They question NASCAR's recent decision to keep the same aerodynamic package for next month's race at the Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. They question why the sanctioning body hasn't asked for independent help with several safety issues. They question why it takes so long to get answers.

''I guess I'm probably like everybody else in that I wish (the review process) could go a little faster than what it does,'' defending series champion Bobby Labonte said. ''In your mind, you think that we should be moving further ahead, further than we are today. But not one of us can do this. We all have to work together.''

Dale Earnhardt's death Feb. 18 at the Daytona 500 was the fourth time in recent months NASCAR has been forced to deal with tragedy.

Since then, how ever, there have been no safety-based changes in the sport. All four drivers died of head trauma, and yet NASCAR continues to leave the issue of safety collars up to individual teams and drivers.

Instead of being a leader, the sanctioning body is forcing each team to deal with critical aspects of the sport. But unlike the past, most teams are accepting the challenge. Ignoring problems no longer is a way to make them go away.

Bobby Labonte used a new six-point seatbelt system developed in Europe during last week's race at Bristol, Tenn.

More than half the drivers now use either the Head and Neck Support (HANS) device or another form of a neck restraint system to avoid whiplash-like injuries that are suspected to be the cause of death in fatal accidents involving Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper.

Drivers also are developing new seats and exploring different ways to create ''crush zones'' away from the driver's seat that can absorb some of the energy during a crash.

''Not all people are looking at the same thing,'' driver Jeff Burton said. ''We have many different people looking at different things. We don't have a group of people where they say, 'Here's what your role is, and here is what your role is.' We don't have that, but we do have a group of people running off in different directions. We need to find a way to pull all of that information together.''

The important thing, for now, is drivers feel an urgency to break tradition and talk. Is anybody listening?

REACH Don Coble at

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