NASCAR grows up


WHEN THOSE DARING young (and not so young) men in their flying machines go thundering around the curves at any of the country's scores of NASCAR race tracks this year, they're going to have a better chance than ever before of living to cross the finish line. That's got to make all but the most hard-headed NASCAR fans and drivers happy.

For years, safety precautions for NASCAR drivers have been a hotly debated issue, with many drivers, including the ones with the most star power, pooh-poohing the idea of wearing a full-face helmet or using a head and neck restraint system.

But last year changed all that. On Feb. 18, 2001, NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt died from injuries he sustained when he slammed into a wall during his last lap at the Daytona 500. His death stunned the racing world and, coming as it did after three other deaths within the previous nine months, forced drivers and NASCAR officials to rethink their priorities.

As a result, in the 2002 season NASCAR drivers will be required to use head and neck restraint systems, and new, stricter rules will govern the mounting and use of seat belts. The new guidelines mandate fire suits and helmets for pit crews, as well. The organization also says NASCAR drivers must now be 18 years of age or older.

These are sensible rules, and long overdue. But they couldn't have happened until both the NASCAR organization's leadership and the drivers on the track realized that too many men had died in the name of sport. It is ironic indeed that the death of Mr. Earnhardt, who was adamantly against mandatory safety devices for drivers, ultimately became the catalyst for change.

Like so many drivers before him, Mr. Earnhardt felt that his safety was his own responsibility, and the chances he took were his to take. Noble sentiments, from a man dead far too soon.

To its credit, NASCAR is doing research and development on further car safety measures and soft-wall technology that could cushion the impact when drivers hit a concrete wall. The organization has also hired a crash investigator and established a medical oversight board.

Some drivers and many fans no doubt will complain that it takes all the "fun" out of the sport. Maybe they haven't seen the bodies of drivers being pulled from cars, or the crippling injuries of some of the drivers who survive crashes.

Sure, danger is part of what makes NASCAR racing exciting. But even with the new safety rules, it's still plenty dangerous. It's just a little less deadly.

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