Baseline priorities badly out of whack

ON MOTOR SPORTS

Auto Racing

March 09, 2003|By Sandra McKee

Included on a recent preseason Winston Cup media tour of team garages in North Carolina was NASCAR's new Research and Development facility in Concord. Locked in a small room inside that facility are a number of large parts for cars.

"Those parts are used as a standard for parts that show up at the racetracks," said Gary Nelson, NASCAR's managing director of competition. "We're able to bench-mark what we see at the track to originals."

A very good tool, wouldn't you say, to be able to go back to the original to measure how close something is after being modified or, perhaps, damaged at the racetrack?

People get damaged at racetracks, too. Yet NASCAR did not require baseline neuropsychological or cognitive response tests for its drivers before this season. Didn't require it, even though a good number of drivers suffered varying degrees of concussions the past year or two.

Half a dozen can be named without too much effort - Dale Earnhardt Jr., Steve Park, Ward Burton, Jeff Burton, Dale Jarrett and Sterling Marlin.

Yet no one in the sport has to take the test that measures memory, reaction time and motor skills.

How can that be, when NASCAR has car parts under lock and key to make sure it has "a bench mark" to measure whether parts seen at the tracks are 100 percent OK?

If - when - a head injury occurs this season, it would be nice to have a record on file for every driver that acts as a measuring stick the series' medical staff can use to determine if a driver is ready to climb safely back into his race car.

One advocate of the test is Park.

Park, driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc., won an emotional victory in Rockingham, N.C., the week after his car owner, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, was killed at Daytona International Speedway in February 2001. But a wreck in a Busch Series race at Darlington, S.C., that August sidelined him for the rest of the season and for the first four races in 2002.

Even after he came back, many questioned whether he was ready.

"I could paper the whole shop with negative articles," Park said. "Even my own quest to get back to my normal self won't be complete until I win again."

And Park acknowledges he has nothing he can show to anyone - including himself - to indicate he is fully recovered.

"A baseline test should be put on our physical," he said. "I've been through this. I've experienced it. Without a [pre-accident] baseline test, no one knows where you are compared to where you were before you were hurt."

Park laughed cynically.

"Now, if I have one, I have 15 of them," he said. "If something else happens, we'll have a lot of information to go by. It takes 25 minutes. Every driver should have it done."

Some owners, such as Jack Roush, Joe Gibbs, Richard Childress and Chip Ganassi, insist their drivers have them. Some don't.

But even if you think NASCAR shouldn't have to make the test mandatory because competitors in the sport should be smart enough to insist on such a test, it is still repellent to know there is a locked room with what might be called "baseline parts" at NASCAR's immediate disposal, while, at the same time, a driver could suffer a head injury and have no data for doctors to review to determine how far from normal or close to recovery that driver is.

CART beside itself

One of the more interesting aspects of the CART season opener was the willingness of drivers to put their cars wheel-to-wheel for some bold passing.

Eric Bachelart, whose teams competed in the Indy Racing League for two years, owns the car driven by rookie Mario Haberfeld, who is fourth in points and was involved in one of those daring maneuvers in Miami.

Bachelart believes this kind of racing will become the norm in CART, just as it is in the IRL.

The reason? Youthful drivers, getting a chance to race because so many of the veteran drivers have left for the IRL.

"It is inevitable," said Bachelart. "Our series is now about rookies, about fresh blood. All these guys have been racing in Europe. They're pretty aggressive.

"I think this is what people want to see, people fighting pretty hard on the track, close competition and aggression."

CART's next race will be in Monterrey, Mexico, in two weeks.

No charm in three

Hagerstown Speedway has postponed its season-opening event for the third time and rescheduled opening day for next Sunday, which is the Octoberfest Qualifier for the big block modifieds and ITSI late models.

The double feature program pays $2,000 to the winner of each 30-lap main event. Race time is 1 p.m. Gates open at 11.

The first race of the year for the late-model sportsman cars and pure stocks will be Saturday, April 5.

Nuts and bolts

According to Forbes magazine, Earnhardt is still earning a fortune. Earnhardt is tied for third, with John Lennon, the late Beatle, on estate income, making $20 million last year. Only Elvis Presley ($37 million) and Charles Schulz, the Peanuts cartoonist ($28 million) are making more. ...

Fans who want to test their video racing skills against Earnhardt Jr., Park, Michael Waltrip or Jeff Green should sign on to NabiscoWorld.com between now and May 19 to enter the Dale Earnhardt Jr. Super Snack 500 sweepstakes for a chance to do just that. ...

Patrick Long, 21, of Oak Park, Calif., is the first American driver to earn a spot on the Porsche Junior Team. He will compete for the Porsche Carrera Cup.

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