Measures must be taken to protect drivers

Desperate Times

Posted: Thursday, October 11, 2001

CONCORD, N.C. -- They buried another stock car driver Tuesday afternoon.

Another head-on collision with the wall, another broken neck. The racing community has joined to bury its dead five times in the past 17 months. We've cried our tears, shook our heads in disbelief, wondered why and prayed for an ending to the carnage.

Now it's time for the sport to do its part.

Although Blaise Alexander died while driving an ARCA Series car last week at Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C., the threat remains industry-wide as long as drivers, not their sanctioning bodies, continue to take unnecessary risks.

Alexander, like Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, Tony Roper and Dale Earnhardt before him, wasn't wearing either of the two accepted head-and-neck-restraint systems the HANS or Hutchens devices. He was wearing an ARCA-mandated doughnut-like collar around his neck, but it was no match for a 3,400-pound race car veering into a concrete wall at 180 mph.

The cry throughout the garage area following the deadly crash was never more resounding: Enough is enough.

''It's been a long year,'' driver Jeff Burton said.

''It's been a long two years. I just want it to be over. My patience is wearing thin. One death is totally wrong. And how many have we had? I'm an old-fashioned guy in the world, but when we have a rash of problems, we have a problem. It's not coincidence.

''If I had a farm and if my fence won't close, and all my animals are getting out, I'm going to figure out how to get that fence closed.''

NASCAR officials said they are continuing to examine head-and-neck-restraint systems, and it's possible one or both might be required in the future. Until then, it's up to every driver to protect himself.

''I'm disappointed he didn't have any head-and-neck restraint on,'' said driver Joe Nemechek, who was teammates with Alexander two years ago. ''At Dover (last month) we sat down before the race and I was begging him to put something on. My mom was begging him to put something on. He didn't think he needed it. That's the sad part.''

Burton teetered between grief and anger.

More than anything else, he doesn't understand why some of his fellow drivers continue to ignore the facts.

''It certainly is disheartening when someone dies and they don't have on some sort of head-and-neck-restraint system, and they're using the old-style (doughnut) restraints,'' he said. ''We're beyond that. We're better than that.

''Race car drivers aren't dumb. We're not daredevils. We're not people who tend to jump out of planes. We are aggressive people who are very competitive. But we're not stupid. And we don't feel that we're doing something that's real, real dangerous.''

Said defending NASCAR Busch Series champion Jeff Green: ''I'm pretty mad at Blaise for getting in the car and not . . . I mean everybody's got the opportunity to have the Hutchens device or have the HANS device, so I'm mad at him for not using that.''

Tony Stewart is the only full-time Winston Cup Series driver who doesn't wear either the Hutchens or the HANS device. Jimmy Spencer is like a handful of other drivers who don't wear the safety restraints during practice sessions.

And it makes you ask the obvious: Why?

''Number one, drivers have to take it upon themselves to be smart,'' said driver Randy LaJoie. ''After everything that's happened, if you're not wearing a HANS device or the Hutchens device, you're a jackass.''

And then you're dead.

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@mindspring.com



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