Auto racing can't afford more mistakes

Posted: Thursday, September 06, 2001

ATLANTA -- If critics had their way, every driver at this Sunday's Mountain Dew Southern 500 would be wearing a neck brace. Their cars would have collapsible bumpers, air bags and enough padding to withstand a head-on collision with a freight train.

Maybe it's a good thing critics don't make NASCAR rules.

While it seems the sanctioning body has been slow to address the concerns created in Dale Earnhardt's fatal accident on the final lap of the Daytona 500, safety experts insist research into several ideas are proceeding at breakneck speed.

Dr. John Melvin, a biomechanical engineer who will help NASCAR address safety concerns with seatbelts and the rest of the driver compartment, said making quick changes too often creates long-term problems. Turning a bolt at one end of the car often has an effect on the other end, so the sanctioning body needs to be careful before it starts making sweeping changes.

''Anything you do to these cars structurally, you really want to test in the lab before you ask the drivers to go try it out,'' he told a Charlotte, N.C., newspaper.

Melvin provided a good example of a change in windshields for the sake of change that automakers faced 40 years ago.

After several people suffered severe injuries or death after they were partially thrown through the front windshield and back into the interior, Detroit started making windshields that popped out at impact. The results were horrific: passengers being thrown from the car to suffer greater injuries.

What wound up happening was the development of a windshield that remains intact, but provides some tolerance if it's struck by a passenger not wearing a seat belt.

Racing can't afford any more mistakes. If it changes its basic rules package, it's got to get it right the first time. Every time a racing star dies, the company loses a little more of the public's respect and the sport's confidence.

Testing is currently being conducted on energy-absorbing bumpers, composite carbon fiber seats, interior netting, crush zones around the car, new seatbelt systems and energy-absorbing walls known as ''soft walls.''

Many drivers, whose very existence depends on their research, now agree with the slow-but-sure approach by the sanctioning body.

''Take soft walls,'' said Brett Bodine. ''Soft walls are a fix for head-on, frontal crash, but they magnify a little scrape because they're going to grab the car so much (when they brush up against the wall).''

Other safety concerns seem easy and natural and don't need NASCAR's blessing. They merely require accepted responsibility and approval of a driver.

Additional netting inside the cockpit could prevent drivers from hitting roll cages, the roof, the dashboard or the steering wheel during a high impact.

The use of a head and neck restraint systems is another quick change.

Everything else will be slow and deliberate to incorporate, even if the work is being done at breakneck speed.

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