Safety becomes hot issue for NASCAR

Posted: Friday, September 08, 2000

Bobby Labonte's family celebrated his victory following last Sunday's Southern 500 in Victory Lane, knowing they could have just as easily been planning for his funeral.

Two days earlier, Labonte's throttle hung wide open, forcing his car into one of the concrete walls at the Darlington Raceway. He managed to walk away from the crash, knowing that at another time and another place, he could have died.

''I can honestly say that if this had happened in New Hampshire, I don't believe it would been as good,'' Labonte said. ''The car took a better blow here than it would have there, if the same circumstances had happened.''

A mixture of stuck throttles and perceived indifference by officials at New Hampshire International Speedway has many drivers stopping a half-step short of a threatened boycott when the NASCAR Winston Cup Series makes its second stop at the 1.058-mile oval on Sept. 17.

Two drivers Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin have died in separate accidents in the third turn at New Hampshire. Both accidents are believed to be the result of a stuck throttle, but the seriousness of the crashes was amplified by the speedway's configuration: sharp 90-degree turns with slight 12-degree banking.

If a driver has trouble approaching one of the corners at the end of the long straightaways, he has less than a second to make all the necessary maneuvers to avoid slamming at full speed into the wall. Both Petty and Irwin, whose crashes happened a month apart from each other, died at the same spot on the raceway.

Since Irwin died July 7, the majority of the stock car community has asked NASCAR to use its authority to have ''soft walls'' constructed in the first and third turns at New Hampshire. The sanctioning body, however, not only has stayed out of the dispute, it stands behind track owner Bob Bahre's contention the track is safe.

''We are really looking for something to happen,'' said driver Rusty Wallace. ''I think that almost every driver in this garage area will be totally blown away.''

''Soft walls'' are vinyl-covered Styrofoam barriers used to keep large ships from slamming into docks while they're in port. The Styrofoam walls were successfully tested at the Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C., a week ago, and that raceway is considering having them installed in the trouble spots the second and fourth turns in time for the UAW-GM 500 on Oct. 8.

''It's not a track-design issue,'' said Mike Helton, NASCAR's chief operating officer. ''All the elements in regards to safety are an on-going work in progress. We have a lot of activity working on a lot of things from the cars to the elements on the track. It's really a process of eliminating things that don't work and trying to find the one or two that makes sense to carry on the progress of research.''

Since Irwin's accident, NASCAR has mandated kill switches on the steering wheel and modifications to the throttle linkage. That was little consolation to Labonte, who said the modifications didn't stop his car from hitting the third turn at Darlington at full speed. He also said a driver doesn't have enough time to think about, much less depress, the kill switch on the steering wheel.

Car owner Jack Roush has developed a mechanism that automatically turns off the engine when a measured amount of pressure is applied to the brake pedal. Drivers up and down pit road have applauded Roush's maverick attitude to put some issues of safety in the hands who know it best.

NASCAR will allow teams to use the shut-off device on a voluntary basis.

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