Turning corner, NASCAR orders safety changes

Head, neck devices are now mandatory, organization says

October 18, 2001|By Sandra McKee | By Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Saying the time is right, NASCAR has mandated head and neck safety devices be worn immediately by all drivers in its three national professional series.

Beginning this weekend, Winston Cup, Busch Grand National and Craftsman Truck Series drivers will be wearing the HANS or Hutchens devices.

The devices are designed to reduce the movement of the head and neck in high-impact crashes. They have proved in tests that they can reduce the chance of death from basal skull fractures that often occur during such crashes.

Yesterday's announcement came as the Winston Cup series headed to Talladega, Ala., for one of the fastest and most dangerous races on the schedule.

"Based on the studies we've done, the tests in Germany and the responses from the drivers, we felt it is now clear that the device should be mandated," said NASCAR senior vice president George Pyne. "Most of the drawbacks have been addressed. NASCAR's decision to make the driver's side windows wider and our educational seminars for drivers have created greater comfort with using these devices."

Championship Auto Racing Teams mandated the restraints at all oval races in their open-wheel series this season, and FIA, which sanctions Formula One races, recommended the use of the HANS by all drivers, and will make the device mandatory next season.

NASCAR has been under pressure to make the restraint systems mandatory since February, when seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt was killed during the Daytona 500 and became the fourth NASCAR driver to die in the past 17 months.

Basal skull fractures were the determined cause of death in Earnhardt's crash and in the deaths of Busch driver Adam Petty and Winston Cup driver Kenny Irwin.

Two weeks ago during a crash at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., ARCA driver Blaise Alexander, 25, died of a skull fracture during a crash. ARCA officials said last night that 100 percent of its drivers will be wearing head and neck restraints in their race at Talladega this weekend.

"Originally, when I was asked [if the head and neck systems should be mandatory] a few months ago, I felt it wasn't the right time," said three-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who wears a HANS. "It just took me time to get comfortable with wearing it. But tests by NASCAR and our own team's testing has brought me to the point where I do think it is time. This is a smart decision that will make racing safer for all drivers. I'm now a true believer in them."

As of last week, all but about seven drivers in the grand national and truck series were wearing the restraint systems, and only Tony Stewart, who drives for owner Joe Gibbs, was resisting on the Winston Cup circuit."[NASCAR president] Mike Helton has spoken with Tony," Pyne said. "And Joe Gibbs understands it is the right thing to do for our industry. We expect Tony to race this weekend with the device."

The NASCAR decision on head and neck restraints was announced during a conference call that offered a full safety update.

The Winston West and Winston North series will see the head and neck devices mandated "no later than" 2002.

NASCAR will review the restraint issue for its weekly racing series, which includes 10,000 drivers at local tracks across the country, before the 2002 season.

Testing on accident data recorders has been successful and black boxes will be on all Winston Cup cars next season.

An occupant restraint (seatbelt) study has outside experts studying the hardware, webbing and mounting of seatbelt systems. Results are to be implemented before next season.

Work continues on making the driver seat safer, with new designs and additional padding.

NASCAR continues to work with the Indy Racing League on developing "soft wall" technology. Pyne said tracks that hold IRL races usually also run NASCAR events, which means any new soft wall must protect both the light IRL car and the heavy stock car.

NASCAR is not ready to approve the energy-absorbing "Humpy Bumper" because test speeds on the device have not compared with the racing speeds.

NASCAR is interviewing candidates for a full-time medical liaison who would attend every Winston Cup race and keep detailed medical histories on all drivers. They're also looking for a full-time accident investigator.

While NASCAR's decision to make the head and neck device mandatory seems late, considering the majority of drivers had already decided to wear it, Pyne said the organization has taken the proper path.

"I think when you're talking about restraining the movement of a person's head and neck, you're not only talking about the safety of the driver, but others around him," he said. "You're talking about their ability to move and see things around them as they're racing at speeds averaging 185 mph for three or four hours. You have to consider their right to feel comfortable.

"We've been aggressive educationally, bringing in experts to make them feel more safe and we've made big strides to the point where they feel more safe with it than without. That's why now is the right time to do this."

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