When Adam Petty's race car slammed into a concrete wall at 150 mph last May, his body was tightly secured by a safety harness and seat belt. What instantly doomed the 19-year-old grandson of legendary driver Richard Petty was that his head was inadequately restrained.
As the car came to its stop, laws of physics kept Adam's head hurtling in the direction of impact - to the right and slightly forward. The only tethers holding his head to his body were his neck muscles and spinal column. His head hyper-extended so violently, he suffered what trauma specialists call basal skull fracture - a set of injuries in which the fragile bottom of the rear of the skull cracks from stress, often cutting arteries and causing rapid blood loss, and destroying nerve cells that control life functions such as breathing and heart rate.
Then and there, continuation of NASCAR's most famous driving dynasty "just evaporated," says Richard Petty.
The terrible details of Adam's death open a more vast tragedy found during a six-month investigation by the Tribune Company, of which The Sun is a part: Basal skull fractures and similar injuries caused by violent head movement have been the most common cause of death among race drivers over the past 10 years - the same time span in which a device scientifically proven to prevent just such injuries has been available.
Adam Petty should be alive today. So should Kenny Irwin, another rising NASCAR star who died of nearly identical injuries eight weeks after Adam Petty's accident. So should five of the other six NASCAR drivers killed during the past decade. In total, at least 12 of the past 15 drivers killed in major auto racing worldwide since 1991, if only ...
If only the auto-racing industry had moved faster, more intensively, to develop and refine the head-restraint device invented nearly 20 years ago, if only other safety innovations weren't stuck on the drawing board because of inadequate funding for research and development ...
Indeed, if only two of the long-overdue breakthroughs - the head-restraint device and "soft wall" technology that would greatly lessen the impact energy of cars hitting concrete - had been in place, the past decade might have brought an end to the dying that has been the dark delineator of auto racing from other sports since the first driver fatality, in 1898.
At least, "We'd be much further ahead if we had been concerting high-quality research, with consistent funding, over the last 30 years," says Dr. John Melvin, a Detroit-based biomechanical engineer and one of the world's leading authorities on racing injuries.
"Look at all the money being spent on winning alone," says Melvin, who adds that "even a tiny fraction of that" could fund exponential leaps in safety.
Is profit - which would be reduced, but not by much, by safety innovations at tracks - more important to the moguls of racing than driver safety?
"Always," CART driver Michael Andretti said. "Always."
Other findings of the investigation:
A traditional macho acceptance of death as an occupational hazard of racing. "I know the risk. I take all the responsibility," Richard Petty often told his wife during his 35-year racing career. "If I get killed and you ever sue anybody over it, I will haunt you." Today, the man called "The King of NASCAR" resigns himself to his grandson's death as "meant to be."
A poor record by track owners, racing teams and organizations of supporting development of safety measures that could have saved the lives of young Petty and others. Only now is the HANS (Head And Neck Support) system being put to use, and "soft walls" have undergone only minimal testing under race conditions.
Most major racing organizations have heeded the grim message delivered by fatalities in their series and took steps in the 1990s to improve safety conditions for drivers. But America's wealthiest and most popular motor sport, NASCAR, has become the international focal point of continuing tragedy. While three drivers died in NASCAR racing accidents in 2000 - Adam Petty in the Busch Grand National series, Irwin in Winston Cup and Tony Roper in Craftsman Trucks - there were no fatalities last year in the two major categories of racing historically considered the most dangerous: Formula One and Indianapolis-type cars of the Championship Auto Racing Teams series and the Indy Racing League. And more NASCAR drivers - eight - have died of racing crashes in the past 10 years than in Formula One and Indy-car racing combined.
Some forge ahead
CART, the IRL and Formula One have been active in safety research and development, in conjunction with manufacturers such as General Motors, Ford, DaimlerChrysler and independent racing-safety experts. Those organizations have specialized, traveling medical units. Beginning this season, Formula One will require its drivers to wear HANS in all races, and CART will require HANS in its oval-track events. The IRL has been the leader in funding for developing "soft wall" technology.