Safety stalled in slow lane

When Adam Petty's race car slammed into a concrete wall at 150 mph last May, his body was tightly secured by a safety harness and seat belt. What instantly doomed the 19-year-old grandson of legendary driver Richard Petty was that his head was inadequately restrained.

As the car came to its stop, laws of physics kept Adam's head hurtling in the direction of impact - to the right and slightly forward. The only tethers holding his head to his body were his neck muscles and spinal column. His head hyper-extended so violently, he suffered what trauma specialists call basal skull fracture - a set of injuries in which the fragile bottom of the rear of the skull cracks from stress, often cutting arteries and causing rapid blood loss, and destroying nerve cells that control life functions such as breathing and heart rate.


Then and there, continuation of NASCAR's most famous driving dynasty "just evaporated," says Richard Petty.

The terrible details of Adam's death open a more vast tragedy found during a six-month investigation by the Tribune Company, of which The Sun is a part: Basal skull fractures and similar injuries caused by violent head movement have been the most common cause of death among race drivers over the past 10 years - the same time span in which a device scientifically proven to prevent just such injuries has been available.


Adam Petty should be alive today. So should Kenny Irwin, another rising NASCAR star who died of nearly identical injuries eight weeks after Adam Petty's accident. So should five of the other six NASCAR drivers killed during the past decade. In total, at least 12 of the past 15 drivers killed in major auto racing worldwide since 1991, if only ...

If only the auto-racing industry had moved faster, more intensively, to develop and refine the head-restraint device invented nearly 20 years ago, if only other safety innovations weren't stuck on the drawing board because of inadequate funding for research and development ...

Indeed, if only two of the long-overdue breakthroughs - the head-restraint device and "soft wall" technology that would greatly lessen the impact energy of cars hitting concrete - had been in place, the past decade might have brought an end to the dying that has been the dark delineator of auto racing from other sports since the first driver fatality, in 1898.

At least, "We'd be much further ahead if we had been concerting high-quality research, with consistent funding, over the last 30 years," says Dr. John Melvin, a Detroit-based biomechanical engineer and one of the world's leading authorities on racing injuries.

"Look at all the money being spent on winning alone," says Melvin, who adds that "even a tiny fraction of that" could fund exponential leaps in safety.

Is profit - which would be reduced, but not by much, by safety innovations at tracks - more important to the moguls of racing than driver safety?

"Always," CART driver Michael Andretti said. "Always."

Other findings of the investigation:


A traditional macho acceptance of death as an occupational hazard of racing. "I know the risk. I take all the responsibility," Richard Petty often told his wife during his 35-year racing career. "If I get killed and you ever sue anybody over it, I will haunt you." Today, the man called "The King of NASCAR" resigns himself to his grandson's death as "meant to be."

A poor record by track owners, racing teams and organizations of supporting development of safety measures that could have saved the lives of young Petty and others. Only now is the HANS (Head And Neck Support) system being put to use, and "soft walls" have undergone only minimal testing under race conditions.

Most major racing organizations have heeded the grim message delivered by fatalities in their series and took steps in the 1990s to improve safety conditions for drivers. But America's wealthiest and most popular motor sport, NASCAR, has become the international focal point of continuing tragedy. While three drivers died in NASCAR racing accidents in 2000 - Adam Petty in the Busch Grand National series, Irwin in Winston Cup and Tony Roper in Craftsman Trucks - there were no fatalities last year in the two major categories of racing historically considered the most dangerous: Formula One and Indianapolis-type cars of the Championship Auto Racing Teams series and the Indy Racing League. And more NASCAR drivers - eight - have died of racing crashes in the past 10 years than in Formula One and Indy-car racing combined.

Some forge ahead

CART, the IRL and Formula One have been active in safety research and development, in conjunction with manufacturers such as General Motors, Ford, DaimlerChrysler and independent racing-safety experts. Those organizations have specialized, traveling medical units. Beginning this season, Formula One will require its drivers to wear HANS in all races, and CART will require HANS in its oval-track events. The IRL has been the leader in funding for developing "soft wall" technology.

NASCAR, by contrast, has no traveling medical unit. It relies on local doctors to staff track-side medical facilities. And while NASCAR maintains it has also been active in safety research and development, NASCAR officials remain secretive about safety research and refuse to give details.


This month, NASCAR president Mike Helton said the organization's expenditures on safety research and development this year will reach "seven figures," but added: "I am just not prepared to, or desire to, sit here today and tell you exactly what is going on ..."

NASCAR does not require its drivers to wear HANS, even though all three driver fatalities last year were attributed by medical examiners to injuries associated with violent head movement.

Why not?

"Because we are not through the understanding process," Helton said. "The ergonomics inside these stock cars are different." That is, more spacious, with more room for head and body movement than in the much snugger cockpits of Formula One and Indy cars.

Also, "We have made different efforts of wall testing and different mechanical pieces of cars ... and without making details, I don't feel like it's proper to say much further," Helton said.

The only NASCAR-initiated safety-research project that came to light last year was at New Hampshire International Speedway, after both Adam Petty (May 12) and Irwin (July 7) had been killed at that one-mile oval track, both in the third turn. NASCAR announced after the fact that it had tested some sort of "soft walls," but didn't reveal details or results.


NASCAR: Safety a priority

"Safety is No. 1 on our list," says Gary Nelson, NASCAR's chief technical officer. "It has always been No. 1 on our list. Our record proves it is No. 1 on our list."

Spectator safety has appeared to be a priority for NASCAR over the years. In 1987, after a car almost flew into the grandstands at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, NASCAR mandated carburetor-restrictor plates for Talladega and the next-fastest track, Daytona International Speedway, to keep speeds less than 200 mph and to keep cars from going airborne during accidents. Then, in the early '90s, NASCAR developed and mandated roof flaps, which open as a car spins, to help keep it on the ground.

But as for driver safety, as early as 1985, the International Council of Motorsports Sciences tried to establish a universal database on trauma and fatalities among all racing organizations, with the aim of scientific approaches to prevention.

"As good as the idea sounds, it never got going," says one of the organization's founders, Dr. Steve Olvey, a University of Miami specialist in neurosurgical intensive care who is also medical director of CART.

"Some of the sanctioning bodies" didn't want to provide their data, Olvey says.


Was NASCAR one?

"They were the primary ones," Olvey says.

"We are no less interested in safety than anybody else," Helton counters, refusing to offer specifics.

By contrast, Formula One is open with its safety research, believing "it's our obligation to make sure that drivers are given maximum safety," says Formula One team owner Eddie Jordan.

For more than a decade, various major corporations have offered full funding of specialized traveling medical teams for NASCAR, similar to those in CART and Formula One. Each offer has been refused because of NASCAR's fear of liability for medical treatment of drivers, sources say.

Of the other racing series' acceptance of responsibility vs. NASCAR's refusal of it, NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. has said: "They have their legal advisers, and we have ours."


"It is my opinion," says Olvey, "that in view of the fact that all other major motor sports sanctioning bodies have dedicated, in-house medical and safety teams, it leaves NASCAR as an outlier, by virtue of the fact that they continue to leave matters of safety up to the individual drivers and tracks."

Olvey recalls conversations with NASCAR drivers that appalled him during his tenure at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

"I can honestly say for a fact that when I would talk to these guys at Homestead, in the Busch series and the truck series, they did not know what I thought were common beliefs regarding safety that our [CART] guys have known for a long time," he says.

The NASCAR drivers "honestly were not aware of it, because no one had ever talked to them about these things," Olvey says. "They said, 'Oh, my God, if I had known that, I would have done this years ago.' "

Ford's seminar a shocker

Another enormous awakening for NASCAR drivers came just last month, beginning with a safety seminar Ford conducted for its drivers during test sessions at Daytona International Speedway.


Most drivers left the meeting shocked by evidence of how much punishment their bodies are exposed to during crashes.

Drivers were told that of the eight NASCAR racing deaths in the past 10 years, HANS probably would have saved seven.

"We were all kind of shocked," driver Jimmy Spencer said at NASCAR's Media Tour in January.

For years, the HANS device was considered too bulky and confining for drivers to wear. But NASCAR hasn't taken an active role in development of HANS, which has been refined into smaller, more practical versions, thanks to intensification of research by Mercedes-Benz, General Motors and Ford.

HANS was invented nearly 20 years ago by Dr. Robert Hubbard, professor of biomechanical engineering at Michigan State University. Hubbard got the idea in conversation with his brother-in-law, Atlanta sports car driver Jim Downing, who realized that a lack of head restraint was the culprit in many racing injuries.

HANS has been available to drivers in all forms of racing since 1991, and, "Gary Nelson knew about it before he became the technical guy at NASCAR [beginning in 1991 and ascending to the chief technical role in 1992]," Hubbard says.


Ford and GM engineers privately have been encouraging their NASCAR drivers to wear HANS since Irwin became the second NASCAR fatality of the season last July 7. Melvin says HANS "certainly would have helped" Adam Petty and Irwin.

NASCAR maintained for months that it did not forbid use of the HANS system, and this month, Helton said officials now "encourage" drivers to wear it.

Ford has told its drivers that it will pay $1,275 for HANS. So far, 21 Winston Cup drivers have purchased the device, but how many will actually use it in the season-opening Daytona 500 on Sunday remains uncertain.

Many NASCAR drivers say HANS is too confining. But scientists studying in-car camera videotape say NASCAR drivers may not move their heads as much as they think they do in the course of normal driving. And the device has been redesigned to allow for quick release in an emergency, such as fire.

NASCAR driver Brett Bodine, who began wearing HANS in July, has found "no negatives about it."

'Soft walls' also lifesavers


"Soft walls," made of crushable but resilient materials such as polyethylene or high-density foam, have proved to be lifesavers even in experimental forms. Such barriers, which would replace or cover traditional concrete retaining walls, significantly dissipate the enormous energy created by crashes before the horrific shock, or "G-spike," can reach drivers' bodies.

The fledgling IRL has been funding the best soft wall under development. NASCAR does not provide tangible evidence of being anything other than an observer of the project - the Polyethylene Energy Dissipation System (PEDS) - being directed by former GM safety engineer John Pierce.

"That group based in Daytona makes a lot of money," says Pierce, referring to NASCAR. "I don't know why they aren't doing anything. Maybe they are, behind the scenes."

Helton maintains NASCAR is indeed working behind the scenes - but again: no specifics.

It is telling that the most resounding call for improvement has come from NASCAR's most notoriously macho driver, seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt. He has a terse rebuttal to the long-running excuse of racing moguls that soft walls would fragment and require too much cleanup time during races:

"I'd rather they spend 20 minutes cleaning up that mess," says Earnhardt, "than cleaning me off the wall."


Last year, when sticking throttles and concrete walls - the two bottom-line causes of the deaths of Adam Petty and Irwin - were the hottest issues in NASCAR, Nelson was asked if any outside, specialized engineers would be brought in to study the situation.

"I think the best specialized engineers are the guys in this garage area [mechanics and pit crewmen] who build these cars every day and understand them," he said. "I don't think there's anybody who understands them better."

In fact, NASCAR mechanics "are the least technically savvy of all the people we deal with," says a source close to a major manufacturer that participates in several forms of racing.

Unlike CART and Formula One, NASCAR does not require sophisticated computerized systems that keep throttles from sticking and that automatically shut off the engine if the throttle does stick.

After the Adam Petty and Irwin deaths, NASCAR did mandate a "kill switch" within reach of drivers' thumbs on the steering wheels. Previously, the only way a NASCAR driver could shut off his engine was with a toggle switch on the dash.

Even so, drivers maintained that they wouldn't have the instant reaction needed to use the new kill switch. Weeks later, Winston Cup points leader Bobby Labonte crashed hard with a stuck throttle at Darlington, S.C. He was badly shaken and said there was no time to hit the switch.


Behind the times

Formula One, CART and the IRL analyze each of their serious crashes with scientific data gathered by physicians and biomechanical engineers from crash recorders mounted on all their cars.

But NASCAR records no crash data and does no computer modeling, even though "we've offered the 'blue boxes' to them for I don't know how many years," says a Ford source.

Nelson says he just doesn't get the importance of the crash recorder.

"It tells you how hard someone has hit the wall, but that's about all it tells you," he says.

Mechanical simplicity and rugged self-reliance of individual drivers and teams are part of the appeal that makes NASCAR the most popular motor sport in the United States. NASCAR was built on the notion of racing cars similar to what the public could buy and drive. But NASCAR technology has fallen behind that used even in passenger cars - let alone the other, more technologically advanced racing series.


Though Winston Cup driver Jeff Burton believes NASCAR "could be more proactive," he adds, "One of the problems with Winston Cup racing isn't with NASCAR. It's with the drivers and the teams. I can walk through a garage area [at any Winston Cup track] and show you experienced race drivers, even Winston Cup champions, who have no head restraints on their seats, who have their seat-belt brackets mounted 100 percent wrong."

But multiple tragedies, involving at least one high-profile driver, historically have been required to get racing organizations moving on safety.

It took the deaths of legendary Formula One driver Ayrton Senna and rookie Roland Ratzenberger during the same weekend in 1994 at Imola, Italy, to spur Grand Prix racing into a full-fledged safety revolution that has left Formula One without a driver fatality since.

It took the deaths of Gonzalo Rodriguez and Greg Moore in '99 to push CART to mandate the HANS system.

Now, all of motor racing's focus is on NASCAR.