Take issue with safety measures


May 06, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - Last weekend, CART and NASCAR officials were in the spotlight as much as their drivers. How those officials performed, however, is open to interpretation.

CART officials decided to postpone their race at Texas Motor Speedway when all but four drivers acknowledged dizziness brought on by a combination of high speeds and the track's high banking. The crowd had already assembled when CART pulled the plug, saying it was too dangerous for its drivers, as the cars were exerting unusually high gravitational force on the drivers - pulling five "G's" as opposed to the usual three.

"We've all wondered where the line is [physically]," CART driver Michael Andretti said at a news conference in Philadelphia on Thursday to promote today's race in Nazareth, Pa. "I think we just found it."

Andretti went on to say normal pre-race testing wouldn't have helped define the problem, because the tests would have been run with only a couple of cars that could not simulate racing conditions. He also said the open-wheel cars go much faster in race trim than in test situations.

Still, one wonders if something couldn't have been done a month ago - the CART schedule was open that long - to find out just what would happen in race situations. When Texas Motor Speedway originally opened, CART refused to race there because it believed the speeds would be too high, too dangerous. The track banking has been reconfigured since, but wouldn't it have been prudent to run a race-like test this spring to make sure cars, track and drivers were compatible?

On the other side of Philly, Winston Cup driver Jeff Burton said he didn't know enough about the open-wheel cars to make a judgment on testing. He did compliment CART for showing "great restraint," however.

"You know they wanted to run that race," Burton said. "It took a lot of guts to do what they did. It wasn't the drivers who made the decision. It was CART and their medical doctors who did that. The last thing a driver wants to do is go to a doctor and say he has a physical problem. But, in this case, management gave them the opportunity to say what they all were feeling.

"I think the lesson we all should learn is to tell the truth [about physical, medical and on-track difficulties]."

In Fontana, Calif., that same day, Burton's brother, Ward, crashed into the wall. The result: a serious concussion and strained neck ligaments, despite wearing a Simpson-designed head and neck restraint system.

It was reported that NASCAR officials had confiscated Ward's helmet and restraint system and would add it to the organization's research. It again sounded like more secretive efforts by NASCAR to keep possibly damaging information "in house." Jeff Burton said he wanted to set part of that record straight.

"I had Ward's helmet in my hands," he said. "I was talking to one of the ISC [International Speedway Corp.] doctors about the helmet and about what had happened. I said, `You take it, keep it and let Gary [Nelson, NASCAR Winston Cup Series director] look at it.'

"We don't have the data to say what happened. We don't know what G's he was under, what the angle was or the speed. We don't have crash monitoring systems in the car - though I think that will come. What you'd like to find out is some practical experience. `I was wearing the [support] device, and this is what I felt.' The problem with that is Ward doesn't remember anything about the wreck."

Jeff said, however, he believes NASCAR has stepped up to the plate, even if partly because it has had to.

"I think we all got blindsided," he said. "Our history and our safety record indicated for a long time that we were doing things right. Then came the harsh reality, the deaths, the injuries. I think, over time, NASCAR will make this sport much safer.

"But they leave themselves open to ridicule because they provide no information. I like to say NASCAR reacts to almost nothing when it comes to almost everything. Their process is very slow and very methodical. And it can be very frustrating. It's frustrating to me, because I'm a `Let's do it now' kind of person.

Burton sighed.

"NASCAR wants it safe, but ... you have to be willing to do it for yourself. If you are waiting for them to give you the answer, you will be disappointed."

That's why Jeff Burton is working hard on a new seat (made of foam instead of metal) for body support and a new seat back for head, neck and shoulder protection. He acknowledges it is a long, slow process, but added he thinks he is nearly ready to do "sled" testing on his designs. He also hopes to incorporate tests on the HANS, Simpson and Hutchinson (head and neck support) devices.

"In my world, I want to have a say in the safety issues," he said. "I don't want them to tell me what to do."

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