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Safety changes are as fast as cars

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was a test session at Talladega International Speedway, recalled Rusty Wallace, and he was talking with Dale Earnhardt's crew about his full-face helmet, a helmet they all wanted Earnhardt to wear.

"They asked me to try to get Dale to wear a helmet like mine," said Wallace, a longtime friend and rival of the late seven-time champion. "So when Dale came in and got out of his car, I suggested he try my helmet. He said, 'Give it to me!' He pulled it on, got back in the car and drove like crazy on to the track. He set an unofficial track record, came roaring back in the pits, pulled the helmet off and threw it at me. 'There, I tried it!'

"And that was it."

For years, change had come slowly to NASCAR. Its Winston Cup drivers could be just as stubborn as they were competitive.

"Everyone is pretty set in their ways," Richard Petty, the sport's first and only other seven-time Winston Cup champion, has said. "Every driver knows what works for them. They're comfortable with it, and they don't want to try something different."

And NASCAR, an organization that for 53 years has been run by the Bill France family, had operated at its own pace, with its own agenda seemingly guided by two old maxims: If it ain't broke, don't fix it; and the driver's compartment is the responsibility of the driver.

But since Feb. 18, when Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap crash at Daytona International Speedway, the world of NASCAR has been under a microscope.

Earnhardt's death, combined with three others within the previous nine months in NASCAR events, set off such an outcry that the sport has undergone a transformation.

NASCAR and its drivers have seemingly entered into an age of reason.

"I think there is no doubt about the change," driver Ricky Rudd said. "Dale was from the old school, I guess, with a kind of cocky confidence. He'd seen and been through all types of wrecks wearing his open-face helmet, putting on his belts the way he liked them, and he resisted change."

"Nothing was ever going to happen to Superman," said Dale Jarrett, who added that many drivers get to the point where they think they're invincible.

But the past year has shown the danger of clinging to old ways.

"I'd be from the old school, too," Rudd said. "I was one of the last to go to the full-face helmets. I hated the idea of wearing a HANS [head and neck restraint system]. That was my attitude, and it was [Earnhardt's] attitude, too. He got killed, and it was a wake-up call. And my attitude, it was silliness, really, because after you wear [the helmet and the HANS] a few times, you don't even realize you have them on.

"I think everyone gets it now."

Going into the 2002 season, NASCAR has announced a handful of safety changes. There are new rules mandating head and neck restraint systems, fire suits and helmets for pit crew members. An accident data recorder will be in every car. There are tighter restrictions governing the mounting and use of seat belts. There is a minimum age requirement (18) for competition. NASCAR has approved a new driver's seat. And it has instituted a rules package for the two superspeedways - Daytona and Talladega - that is designed to spread out the cars.

The last was a move that made almost everyone happy.

"I think it will make it safer," said two-time Daytona 500 winner Sterling Marlin. "It will take out the three- and four-deep stuff. Last year, a guy in a truck on the interstate could have drafted with us."

The sanctioning body is becoming more pro-active off the racetrack, too. NASCAR has hired a crash investigator to direct accident investigation and three registered nurses to work for a new medical oversight board and to serve as medical liaisons for NASCAR's top series. And NASCAR is expanding its research and development facilities to speed work on car safety and soft-wall technology that could soften the blows drivers receive when they ram headfirst into concrete.

Richard Childress, who owned the car in which Earnhardt was killed, is obviously sensitive to inquiries about safety. During a recent group interview, Childress was asked a question that implied NASCAR's response to safety concerns had been slow before Earnhardt's death. Childress grew rigid and his face turned red.

"Some of the press, one or two, burned me up," he said stonily. "They felt they had to prove something. ... NASCAR had worked on safety before the accident, and we've got people dedicated to it. A lot of things were and are being accomplished."

Later, Childress acknowledged: "I think now everybody is taking an extra look at things we perhaps didn't look at before. But I still think it goes to the driver and his preferences."

Childress seems to be in the minority now, as even the most headstrong drivers, such as Mark Martin and Wallace, see the need for strong advice and direction.

"You look at open-wheel race cars, and you see a lot of safety improvement," said Martin, who swore last August he would be the last driver to use a head and neck restraint system, but now sees the value in it. "It wasn't as progressive in stock car racing, and it's all our fault. It was basically left to the drivers and secondly to teams, and we did a poor job."

Things are improving and drivers are going along, though Wallace said he is still amazed at how far the safety features have gone.

"We're packed into these cars like we're in cocoons now," Wallace said. "You're talking to a guy who has flipped 25 times in one wreck and driven 200 mph head-on into the wall at Pocono, Pa. I felt safe before, but now we're doing safety things we never dreamed of."

Because of all the near-misses, no one believed change was necessary. Owner Rick Hendrick, who fields four cars, including those of four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon and two-time champion Terry Labonte, compares the situation to what has happened since Sept. 11.

"Why didn't we do all the things to prevent terrorism that we're doing now before 9-11?" Hendrick said. "The answer is we didn't know we had to. We saw [Adam] Petty, [Kenny] Irvin and [Tony] Roper go, but it was Dale's death that woke everybody up. Everyone realized we had to act.

"We're all working on it together, not trying to outmaneuver the other guy," Hendrick said. "And we're going to try everything that's out there to make our cars safer."

At least four drivers and teams have been working on new, safer seats. At PPI Motorsports, team owner Cal Wells sold stock from his personal portfolio and a little of his wife's jewelry to finance his research on a new seat that fits a driver like "a body sleeve." It was approved by NASCAR last month.

"Safety is part of my agenda," said Wells, who once lost a driver in another series.

A number of teams are buying the PPI seats and working on the fit and installation. Martin said: "It's the seat I want my son to be in," but he, like Jarrett, will not be in the PPI seats at Daytona. In Martin's case, the small size is not small enough, and in Jarrett's the large seat is not large enough. Both men say they will continue to watch the seat's development and employ it when practical.

Racing is never going to be totally safe, because racing inherently isn't safe. But, as Rudd said, attitudes toward making the sport safer have changed.

"I don't think we've seen the last person perish," he said. "But you've got to try to make things in your favor."

Speed Week

At Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway

Saturday

Daytona 500 pole qualifying, noon (NBC)

Goody's Dash Series, 4 p.m.

Sunday

Budweiser Shootout, 1 p.m. (TNT)

Discount Auto Parts 200 ARCA, 1 p.m.

Feb. 14

Gatorade 125-mile qualifying races, 1 p.m. (TNT)

Feb. 15

NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, TBA (ESPN)

True Value IROC, noon (ESPN)

Feb. 16

EAS/GNC Live Well 300 Busch Series, 1 p.m. (TNT)

Feb. 17

Daytona 500, 12:30 p.m. (NBC)

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