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NASCAR safety races forward


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Five years ago come Saturday, then-NASCAR czar Bill France Jr. issued a statement that thundered in its simple enormity: "NASCAR has lost its greatest driver ever."

Dale Earnhardt had been killed in the last turn of the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Suddenly NASCAR was, with blackest irony, the No. 1 story in American sports.

NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw likened the sudden passing of the iconic figure to those of Elvis Presley and Princess Diana. The planned covers of national news magazines were scrapped and replaced with portrait photos of Earnhardt. And he finally made the cover of Sports Illustrated, a publication that, in life, he'd felt had slighted him for years.

The aftershocks - mainly controversy over NASCAR's safety standards - wouldn't subside for months, and then only after a larger, graver event that year: 9/11.

But in these five years NASCAR has traveled in safety technology, "the change is dramatic," says Dr. Barry Myers, a professor of surgery and biomechanical engineering at Duke.

In 2001, Myers was the court-appointed expert who studied the causes of Earnhardt's fatal injury, basal skull fracture.

"If we could go back five years," Myers says, "and ask the question, 'Where would we want this organization to be with regard to safety in five years?' ... I think this is where you'd want them to be."

On Sunday, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. drives in the 48th Daytona 500, "there's almost no chance he could be killed in the same way his father was, given the equipment in the cars now," says John Melvin, a Detroit-based biomechanical engineer who is considered the world's leading comprehensive authority on auto racing safety.

Five years ago, Myers and Melvin were viewed warily inside NASCAR. They were outsiders, scientists delving into a supposedly homespun form of racing where seat-of-the-pants technology was revered. That both are now paid consultants to NASCAR, as are other top safety scientists, is monumental in itself. And Melvin says conditions are the safest ever for Speedweeks at Daytona.

Five years ago this week, the Orlando Sentinel and other newspapers in the Tribune Publishing chain, including The Sun, published a series of stories examining NASCAR's safety standards and practices. The stories focused on basal - called "basilar" by some physicians - skull fracture as a preventable syndrome. Drivers were dying because their heads were flopping about violently during crashes, devastating the part of the brain stem that controls breathing and heartbeat.

Drawing on the expertise of Melvin and others, the papers published suggestions that included:

Mandating head-and-neck restraints - particularly Dr. Robert Hubbard's HANS device - for all drivers.

Installation of energy-absorbing "soft walls" to pad unforgiving concrete and lessen the horrific G-spike of crashes.

Development of cocoon-like seats that function as survival cells.

Re-engineering of NASCAR racecars to include onboard energy-dissipating materials.

And installation of "black boxes," or crash-data recorders.

Five years later, each of those suggestions has been implemented by NASCAR except for the addition of extra energy-absorbing materials in the cars.

Ed Hinton writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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