NASCAR needs faster response to safety issues

ON MOTOR SPORTS

Auto Racing

October 28, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NASCAR has mandated head and neck restraint systems for all of its Winston Cup drivers, but that doesn't mean scenes such as last Sunday's crash at Talladega Superspeedway are OK.

For those who missed it, Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte's car tumbled over, and for one chilling moment, things looked dreadfully bad as the driver's side of his Pontiac nearly slammed down on top of the outside wall. As it was, 15 cars went spinning in blinding smoke as Labonte's car slid down the straightaway on its roof.

As I sat nervously - and who doesn't after the way drivers have died during the past 18 months - waiting for someone to say Labonte and everyone else was all right, all I could think was, "This is too much."

And as the drivers emerged from their cars, they looked and said it was too much, too. Sometimes, though, you had to look as well as listen to get the message.

"No one got hurt, so I guess it's all right," said Labonte, his eyes wide, his face taut.

It wasn't all right. It was too scary.

Everyone loves watching Talladega, with the cars bunched row after row, three and four abreast. As Jeff Burton says, "I watch the tape of every race, and I certainly watch Talladega. A lot of stuff happens. It's fun to watch."

But who wants to be in the middle of it?

At Talladega, because of the NASCAR rules package that includes the power-sapping restrictor plate, the worst cars and the most inexperienced drivers can keep pace with the best.

A driver's skill has little to do with what happens during a race and has nothing to do with staying on the lead lap, with the lead pack. At Talladega, anyone can do it. If you or I had the guts to hold our accelerators to the floor board, we could do it. Now, isn't that scary?

Because of the lack of a need for driving talent there, we do see "stuff." You see cars and drivers who usually run a lap down by the halfway point at other races running middle of the pack on the final lap. You see front-runners, such as Tony Stewart and Dale Jarrett, hanging around the back of the pack, trying to avoid the big, inevitable crash, and they only start to "race" in the closing 25 or 30 laps.

That's what Stewart did, coming from the rear to finish second. That's what Jarrett tried to do, but he was unlucky. He got caught in the big wreck, anyway.

Before this race, NASCAR took 19 cars and drivers to the 2.5-mile superspeedway to do a major test - to see if something could be done to spread out the cars and make the race a little less intense without making it dull.

Rusty Wallace said the majority of the drivers had spoken to NASCAR and recommended a number of changes that made the cars more comfortable. But NASCAR made no changes going into last Sunday's race.

Now, after loud, fearful post-race outcries, the sanctioning body says it will review the rules that apply to the two superspeedways, Talladega and Daytona International Speedway, again before February's Daytona 500.

It's unfair to criticize NASCAR for purposely putting drivers' lives at risk. NASCAR only set out to give fans what they want, exciting racing. Unfortunately, that effort is putting the drivers' lives at risk, and for that, we can be critical.

NASCAR has to adjust the rules package in a way that puts the driver back into the equation and allows car and engine builders to create cars with the ability to make bold moves, without having all 43 cars bunched on each other's front and rear bumpers.

Sterling Marlin said NASCAR needs to allow cars to go 200 mph, so the ones who can do that speed can separate themselves from the ones who can't.

I don't know if that's the fix. I don't know if taking the restrictor plate off and adjusting roof flaps, spoilers and springs to compensate is the answer.

I don't know how to fix the problem. It's not my job.

It's NASCAR's job. NASCAR has the tools: technicians, test sessions and the input from 43 drivers and their race teams, if necessary. NASCAR can fix it.

In the aftermath of the deaths of four NASCAR drivers over the past 18 months, NASCAR has been exceedingly slow to act. It's been slow to act in this situation too, but, as yet, it's not too late. Let's hope it takes the initiative now, before anyone else stops breathing in a crash.

The No. 3

Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced he will drive in two Busch Series races next season in a car wearing his late father's car number, 3.

The son of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt will debut the No. 3 Chevrolet, prepared by Richard Childress Racing - the team for which Earnhardt drove for all but his first title - in February in the Busch race at Daytona International Speedway.

No one has seen No. 3 on a race track since Earnhardt was killed on the Daytona 500's last lap in February. And while it will be a fitting tribute for Earnhardt Jr. to return the number to the race track, it would be equally fitting for NASCAR to find a way to retire the number from Winston Cup competition - or all NASCAR competition.

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