RICHMOND, Va. - Say what you want about Tony George, the man who owns Indianapolis Motor Speedway and created the Indy Racing League, but he has been relentless in the pursuit of safety.
For two years, he financed a soft-wall research project on his own. Then, he and Dr. Dean Sicking, director of the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, invited NASCAR to be part of their ongoing project.
Over the past six years, George has basically reinvented oval open-wheel racing - to the displeasure of many. But few can argue about the safety improvements made to the IRL cars over those years.
Last Wednesday, George announced that SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barrier soft-wall technology is in place for this month's racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
This is wonderful news.
NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter, in Richmond yesterday for the rain-delayed Winston Cup race, said the technology is far ahead of any schedule that NASCAR could have imagined.
"George deserves all the credit in the world for pursuing it and funding it for two years," said Hunter. "When we were invited to become involved, we jumped at the chance ... but knowing something like this is very complex, we had no timetable."
Drivers campaigned for soft walls even before recent tragedies culminated in the death of seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt at the 2001 Daytona 500. For a long time, it seemed that sanctioning bodies were dragging their feet, looking for the perfect answer before being willing to test any kind of improved system.
But in 1998, George agreed to use a version of PEDS Barrier (Polyethylene Energy Dissipating System) at the inside exit of Turn 4. Though that model had problems with debris spilling onto the track in a crash, George poured money into the project, seeking something better.
"Since our founding in 1909, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has always been a leader in automotive safety and innovation," George said matter-of-factly. "A new energy-absorbing barrier represents another milestone in this long history, and it will not be the last."
Tests involving 18 donated Indy cars and 10 donated Winston Cup stock cars have brought the project to the point of being taken to the school of hard knocks, where it can be proven or disproven in actual races. Almost everyone is excited by the possibilities.
"We are trying everything we can to make the cars safer," said Helio Castroneves, last year's Indy 500 winner. "I am glad the tracks are willing to step up with this new system."
So far, just the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is using the new system. As NASCAR's Hunter said: "We now have to wait for the on-track testing to determine the next step. And, we have to determine what will work at tracks that aren't like Indy - but this is a wonderful step."
It is not cheap. It cost George about $700,000 to install the walls at his speedway and millions more for the research that created them. But the good news, said Hunter, is that George and the IRL hold the patent on the technology and are on record as saying they are not looking to make money.
When, or if, the walls are proven to be a success, they will be offered to tracks at cost. Hunter said, in his opinion, "every owner will step up to the plate to install them."
If there is a plate to step up to, it will be thanks to George.
Veteran driver Eddie Cheever, who won the 1998 Indy 500, noted that while soft-wall technology might well have seemed to be the next realistic step toward safety, it didn't just happen.
"On paper this sounds easy," he said. "But it has taken a huge investment in time, research and money. It took Tony's commitment to make this happen."
When men such as Bobby Allison, Junior Johnson, Terry Labonte and Bill Elliott began their careers in what is now the Winston Cup Series, they were lucky to have matched tires.
"When I ran my first race at Darlington, I set the car up myself and rode in the truck to and from the race track," said two-time Winston Cup champion Terry Labonte. "That's how everyone used to start out. Things have changed."
Once, a rookie was lucky to finish a season in the Top 20, let alone win a race. A list of rookies who didn't win races reads like an induction list for the Hall of Fame: David Pearson, Richard Petty, Bobby and Donnie Allison, Ricky Rudd, Alan Kulwicki, Rusty Wallace. From 1958 through 1998, only five rookies won races. Only Davey Allison won twice, in 1987.
Then, in 1999 Tony Stewart won three times and became the first rookie to finish ranked in the top five. In 2000, Matt Kenseth won. Last season, Kevin Harvick won twice.
Going into last night's race in Richmond, rookie contender Jimmie Johnson had a victory and was ranked fifth. While Johnson's rookie challenger, Ryan Newman, is 18th and has not yet won, he has been a contender.
Only rookie Shawna Robinson has yet to run up front, and she is the only one of the three in a position similar to the rookies of long ago, driving for a new, unsponsored, inexperienced team.
But Robinson's situation is now the exception, not the rule.
Rookies are now signing with big-budget car owners and benefiting from the input of successful men such as Jeff Gordon (Johnson), Rusty Wallace (Newman), Jeff Burton (second-year driver Kurt Busch), and the veteran team of car owner Richard Childress (Harvick).
The rookies, of course, are getting sick of hearing that their success is based on their team's equipment. But the old names came to Winston Cup with years of experience backing them, too. The only difference seems to be the material goods.