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Tragedy prompts NASCAR changes

Dale Earnhardt’s Death | 10 Years Later

- pstonge@charlotteobserver.com
Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011

Weeks after Dale Earnhardt died, NASCAR’s top executives gathered in the Washington, D.C., offices of Powell Tate, a public relations firm founded by the former press secretaries of Jimmy Carter and Nancy Reagan. It was an extraordinary meeting – not only because of the tragedy that prompted it, but because it had led the famously insular NASCAR to ask for help.

And NASCAR needed help in the spring of 2001. Officials had answered Earnhardt’s death with mostly silence to the media – a point that a young Powell Tate executive named Ramsey Poston made to the room. “They had no plan,” Poston remembered this month. “They hadn’t thought about having a plan.”

In response, NASCAR’s chairman, Bill France Jr., explained exactly what he thought of the media – a colorful diatribe that caused former Carter press secretary Jody Powell to take a long drag off his cigarette. Complaining about the media might feel good in the short term, Powell offered with his deep Georgia drawl. “But in the long term,” Poston remembers Powell saying, “being pissed off is not a plan.”

It was a moment that seeded change – not only in how NASCAR communicated with others, but in the way it approached safety.

In the 10 years since Earnhardt’s death, no drivers or spectators have died at races in NASCAR’s three National series – now Sprint, Nationwide and Camping World truck. In the 10 years before Earnhardt’s death, 10 people had died in the same three series.

Earnhardt’s death was the fourth in less than a year, and it prompted an examination of NASCAR and racing as a whole. An Observer investigation that year found that dozens of people died each year at U.S. tracks big and small, and that patterns were evident that could save lives. No one, however, seemed to be taking a thorough look.

But when Earnhardt hit the wall at Daytona on Feb. 18, 2001, NASCAR was shoved from the fence it had long straddled between what was safe and what put people in the stands.

“When you have significant accidents in a short period of time like we did, it ought to make you focus your attention,” NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France said this month.

“Everybody in the industry said, ‘We have to do something, and we have to do it quick,’” said H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, then president of Lowe’s Motor Speedway. “We all knew this was bad for business, to be selfish about it. We couldn’t keep taking this and keeping sponsors.”

That led to the meeting in Washington, D.C., and from that sprung dozens of other meetings and conversations. Within a year, officials had put into place a plan that would lead to better data collection from crashes, mandatory head-and-neck restraints, crash-absorbing walls at NASCAR’s top series tracks, and a new, safer car.

“The way that safety was looked at then was different,” says Tom Gideon, director of safety, research and development at NASCAR’s R&D Center in Concord. “It was more of a reactionary response: If somebody gets hurt, what do we do? How do we fix it?”

Now, says Gideon and others, NASCAR finds itself looking to anticipate safety issues – not catch up to them. That improvement has come thanks to a deeper cultural change that’s just beginning to spread throughout racing.

It is, officials say, a willingness to look inward and examine safety shortcomings – but also to look outside its walls for assistance.

“They did kind of play things closer to the vest in the old days,” said Dr. Steve Olvey, a motorsports safety expert who is director of the neuroscience intensive care unit at the University of Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital. “Now there’s a lot of give and take with them, and I think that’s helped them immensely.”

New transparency, initiatives

The report came in two volumes, each with a plain blue cover and simple title: Official Accident Report – No. 3 car. It was jarringly clinical – words and pictures presented as evidence, from the blood-stained seat belt in Figure 21 to the 16-point list of injuries suffered by NASCAR’s most popular driver. Never before had NASCAR deconstructed an accident this thoroughly.

Most notable, perhaps, was that two of the report’s authors – Dr. James Raddin, director of San Antonio’s Biodynamic Research Corp. and University of Nebraska safety researcher Dean Sicking – participated in a two-hour news conference on Aug. 21, 2001, along with NASCAR president Mike Helton, to explain the findings and answer reporters’ questions.

For NASCAR, the sharing of that stage was a signal of changes already happening within the organization. By then, Poston and Powell had stressed in dozens of meetings and phone calls with NASCAR executives that public openness was important, but that the public needed to know that NASCAR had a comprehensive safety plan.

Some pieces already were available. Before 2001, NASCAR had developed plans for a Research & Development Center in Concord, which would be a central collection point for research. Also, a handful of drivers already were wearing head-and-neck restraint devices manufactured by Atlanta-based HANS Performance Products.

But Earnhardt’s death forced a coalescence of those pieces, according to Poston, now a NASCAR official: “It definitely accelerated everything NASCAR was doing.”

It also prompted new initiatives encouraged by people outside of NASCAR – including the installation of data crash recorders in the three National series. “The researchers highlighted the fact that we needed to gather data,” says Mike Fisher, managing director of the R&D Center. “They wanted to look at things and see if there were any patterns.”

Those patterns steered NASCAR’s focus to three safety issues – head-and-neck restraints, track barriers and cars.

By the 2002 season, drivers were required to wear head-and-neck devices. Next came the tracks, albeit more slowly. Since the late 1990s, Sicking had been developing energy-absorbing barriers – called SAFER barriers – for the Indy Racing League. The first barriers went up at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2002, and NASCAR tracks began to follow two years later – although some weren’t completely outfitted with the walls for years.

But after Jeff Gordon hit an unprotected wall at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March 2008, Gordon and other drivers sharply criticized the track. The reaction – and the track’s quick installation of SAFER barriers in response – showed clearly how the importance placed on safety had changed since Earnhardt’s death.

That emphasis came from a place that would’ve been unlikely a decade earlier – drivers. Former driver Brett Bodine remembers the summer before Earnhardt died, when HANS device manufacturers walked through the garage area in Indianapolis, introducing their product to drivers. Bodine, now an official at the R&D Center, was one of a few to agree to try one out, and he did so in a July 2000 race.

“I got called a lot of sissy names,” he says.

Earnhardt was famously resistant to safety measures, declining to wear a full-face helmet, but he was far from the only driver who shooed away safety measures. Said driver Mark Martin: “It’s just something we didn’t put enough thought into. It didn’t have to be the way it was.”

Top drivers help raise awareness

Now, drivers boast about being part of the safety conversation with NASCAR, and race teams each have an “interior guy” who consults with R&D about safety issues inside cars. And at the R&D center, the talk is not so much about fixing safety problems – “From a driver restraint standpoint, we’re in a pretty good spot,” said Fisher – but looking at potential issues to come.

The success has reached down to NASCAR’s lower levels; since mandating head-and-neck restraints in four minor league touring series, NASCAR has had only one death, in a 2007 wreck in the Whelen Modified Tour. Also, deaths at the small U.S. tracks sanctioned by NASCAR have dropped from at least 20 in the decade before Earnhardt’s death to four in the past 10 years – and three of those were heart attacks.

NASCAR does not mandate head-and-neck restraints at those tracks, but officials credit the safety measures at top levels for creating more awareness throughout the industry.

Coming this year is the Nationwide Series version of the Sprint Cup’s Car of Tomorrow, which featured a larger cockpit that had more crush resistance. 2011 also will bring a stiffer, force-absorbing seat for both cars. Next up: continued studies about how to keep cars from getting airborne.

“We’re looking to the future now,” said Gideon.

Officials know well, however, the dangers the present can bring. NASCAR still toes a perpetual line between business and safety – between promoting rough-and-tumble racing to its fans but wanting drivers to walk away from the wrecks that racing can provoke. Last weekend, officials lowered the minimum driving age at its touring series to 15, meaning that drivers without a license to drive on U.S. roads can mix it up at 100-plus mph on Friday and Saturday nights.

But now, NASCAR is seen across the industry as a safety leader, and officials from other sanctioning bodies travel to Concord to see what they can learn. That includes the National Hot Rod Association, reeling from deaths at its highest levels. “They’ve been to see us,” Gideon says. “They’re moving forward.”

It’s a place – reaching out for help – where NASCAR found itself a decade ago.

“The people that drove race cars and built race cars thought they really knew race cars more than anybody else,” said Gideon.

Said Bodine: “I think what we learned by working together was that we didn’t know.”

Observer staff writer Jim Utter contributed.

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