Pressure to keep racing a pain for injured drivers


August 29, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Anyone who has seen Mark Martin's crewmen lifting him in and out of his Winston Cup car before and after races the past several months must wonder about drivers racing hurt.

It seems bizarre. In other sports, there are all kinds of ways to deal with injured players, be they quarterbacks, pitchers or goalies.

There are disabled lists, injured reserved lists and physically unable to perform lists.

Players go on them and come off them with few repercussions.

In Formula One racing, the governing body has a rule that a driver has to be able to get out of his car and away from it in five seconds or he can't race. Two-time world champion Michael Schumacher, who is coming back from a broken leg and has been able to practice without problem, isn't racing in the Belgium Grand Prix this weekend. He didn't even attempt the test.

Anyone want to bet whether Martin, with rib and knee injuries, could have passed such a test a few weeks ago?

In Winston Cup racing, drivers -- whose lives depend on their endurance and their ability to make quick decisions and react with lightning quickness -- have no such rules. So Martin, second in the Winston Cup points standings, has kept racing.

Winston Cup drivers feel compelled to get into their cars, no matter what. It used to be more understandable. In the early days of the series, pay was low and drivers feared an injury would cost them their livelihood. If they didn't -- or couldn't -- drive, someone else could and would replace them.

Now, with drivers having contracts with car owners and sponsors, you'd think things would be better. But they're not. In fact, the pressure seems to be worse.

Drivers earn Winston Cup points only when they're in their race cars. The points add up. The higher you finish in the standings, the more money you earn. And the money in NASCAR these days is bigger than ever.

"Guys are thinking a little more about their future and what happens if they're not in the car," said three-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who has driven with injured ribs. "The money you make -- everyone wants to support their families -- and all of it is based around racing. There's not much to fall back on. And if you're going to win a championship, you've got to be in the car. If you're not in the car, you're not going to get paid."

Gordon said he has seen drivers race after hitting their heads and breaking their arms. Some have never been the same, he said, but they kept racing.

"It's all based on them keeping that job and that someone else doesn't come in and take that job away from them," said Gordon. "I don't know the fix for that, but that's the way it is."

Five years ago, when Ernie Irvan suffered a near-fatal accident at Michigan Speedway and his then-car-owner Robert Yates said he would hold Irvan's seat for him for as long as it took him to recover, it was unheard of. And Yates kept his promise.

Now, Irvan has been injured again at Michigan. A head injury, yet again. He's home recovering. Car owner Read Morton has hired Jerry Nadeau as a temporary replacement for this weekend's Goody's 500 in Bristol, Tenn.

That seems humane. You'd expect him to be given some time. You might even wish he'd retire from driving and concentrate on running the Craftsman Truck team he owns. But Irvan will have additional medical tests in the next few days to see if he is fit enough to drive next weekend at Darlington, S.C.

Gordon says that's the way it is. Everyone plays by the same rules. But somehow, NASCAR should find a way to do it better.

Another calling?

When Pete Sampras, the world No. 1 tennis player, was in an ATP tournament in Indianapolis last week, the Los Angeles Times reported he visited former CART driver Stefan Johansson's Karting Center and took a few laps on the serpentine course with open-wheel drivers Mark Blundell and Helio Castro-Neves.

"This guy is good," Castro-Neves said. "He's very competitive. If you got him out there a few times, he'd be unbelievable."

Measuring stick

You say you really want to work for Jeff Gordon's racing team. You apply for a job and sit down across the desk from crew chief Ray Evernham.

He looks at you and asks: "How bad do you want to do this job?" And you say, "I'll do whatever it takes."

Then Evernham closes in.

"When someone says that to me, I want to know exactly what they mean," Evernham said. "Do they mean whatever it takes from 8 to 5? Whatever it takes so long as it doesn't interfere with my personal life? Or do they mean they're willing to do whatever it takes all the time?"

Evernham said he looks for people with common sense and good judgment.

"How much experience they have isn't the most important thing to me," he said. "It's those two things, good sense and judgment and whether they're willing to put the job first in his life. I really do care about my family, but the job comes first."

Nuts and bolts

How many remember local sports car racer Michael Keyser? The Butler resident raced Can Am cars and endurance sports cars a few decades ago. In 1973, he published "The Speed Merchants," covering his racing stops from 1969 through 1972. Now, that book has been redone. Information about "Merchants" and another Keyser undertaking, "A French Kiss With Death," a look at Steve McQueen and the making of the movie "Le Mans," is available on the Web at

The NHRA Federal-Mogul Drag Racing Series continues with its Final Eliminations today at 8: 30 a.m. at Cecil County Dragway in Rising Sun.

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