NASCAR rules make the race unsafe at any speed

March 01, 2001|By Michael Hill

IT IS A memory etched with the fine tools of adolescence, my father walking into the bedroom on a Monday morning with a newspaper in his hand as I was waking for another day of eighth grade.

"Joe Weatherly was killed yesterday," he told me. Dad probably didn't know who Joe Weatherly was, but he knew his 13-year-old son did. I was fighting back tears at breakfast and carried sadness throughout the day.

Joe Weatherly was a race driver, twice champion of the NASCAR circuit. His death, which came on a track in California, caused no major stir nationally; stock car racing was seen as a sport with limited regional appeal. It was a far cry from this week when Dale Earnhardt's demise in Daytona was front-page news across the country.

But there was a difference, not only in reaction between the deaths of Weatherly -- and the three other NASCAR drivers who would die in the next year -- and Mr. Earnhardt. In 1964, those drivers died in a dangerous sport that pushed man and machine to their limits; Dale Earnhardt died in a contrived entertainment that uses danger as part of its money-making appeal.

I watched much of the Daytona 500, the heavily hyped debut of NASCAR's new $2.8 billion television contract with Fox and NBC. Constantly viewers were told what an exciting race this was. Lead changes were charted as evidence of the high level of action. But to any motor sports fan with a modicum of sophistication, those claims were absurd.

Consider that after more than 400 of the 500 miles, the field appeared much as it did on the parade lap before the race began -- two lines of cars zooming around the track captured in aerodynamic bubbles. It was not exciting racing, it was high-speed musical chairs.

How could it be that after 400 miles cars put together on shoestring budgets with second-rate drivers were side by side with the best drivers in machines backed by multi-million-dollar operations? It's because that's the way NASCAR wants it.

Consider that automobile racing came about a century ago not just as a contest, but as a way of improving the breed. Throughout its history, race drivers were the automotive equivalent of test pilots, out there on the engineering edge, advancing the technology in a way that eventually showed up on the highways.

Back when Weatherly died, that was true of stock cars. Engineering advances were infrequent in Detroit those days, but the automakers did produce more powerful engines at the behest of their racing programs. And in those days, if the engine was not in cars anyone could buy, it was not allowed on the track.

But that hasn't been true in NASCAR in decades. While sports cars and Formula One racers and Indy-style cars continue to push technology, NASCAR's drivers compete in obsolete machines whose designs were frozen 30 years ago.

All of the advances of the last three decades that went into the car in your driveway -- from overhead camshafts and fuel injection to independent suspension and multivalve engines -- are prohibited by NASCAR. Indeed, you would be hard-pressed to find an automobile powered by the type of engine NASCAR uses -- a push rod V-8 with a four-barrel carburetor -- anywhere outside of a classic car show.

With its engine and handling options limited, Detroit turned to aerodynamics to make its products more competitive on NASCAR tracks. The result was sleek cars whose essential design -- long hoods, short rear decks, sloping windshields, air dams below the front bumper -- became the profile for cars around the world.

But since such advances in design meant that some brands went faster than others, NASCAR did away with that. Now if you want to start racing -- as Dodge did this year -- you build the car to the design NASCAR gives you. And then NASCAR tweaks it so that that every car is exactly the same. Improving the breed is not an option.

NASCAR does this in the name of entertainment. It wants guaranteed drama.

So you get the high-speed thrill ride that passed for a race at Daytona. When the inevitable happened and a car got sideways in the midst of a crowd, nearly half the field was wiped out. There were no serious injuries in that fracas. But when the race was restarted, NASCAR's rules meant that those left in the race would be closely bunched until the end. It was in that bunch that Mr. Earnhardt got touched and hit the wall at 180 mph, killing him instantly.

Mark Martin, one of the best of NASCAR's drivers, said it best after he was taken out in the massive pileup. "If you ask every driver, they'd say it's about racing," he said of the wreck. "But I guess we're here to put on a show; that's it. We're not here to race."

It's one thing to die -- as test pilots and race drivers and astronauts and others of that ilk always have -- pushing the limits of man and machine. It is another to die in a high-speed spectacle designed only to entertain. When the NASCAR honchos -- the ones who now refer to stock car racing as a "product" and its tracks as "markets" -- look around for someone to blame for Dale Earnhardt's death, they might start with the mirror.

Michael Hill, a reporter with The Sun, first heard the sound of stock cars sitting on his grandmother's porch in Darlington, S.C.

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