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 One Bright Shining Star

Auto racing is full of risk, but the crash and death of Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR's bright shining star, points to how great that risk can be…even more so when driving in NASCAR.

2001 is the first year of major television network coverage for the hugely popular racing league, and thus far money and politics have been the guiding forces, not the need for major redesign of the safety equipment and restrictions on the power generated by the massive power plants that propel the racers around many tracks at speeds well over 200 miles per hour.

No question, the skill and fortitude of the drivers are important. Mere inches separate the cars while racing around an oval track for hours. Victory or defeat is often determined by heady technical managers determining fuel mileage, pit strategy and race tactics. But safety regulations are important too, and up until now they have been left to a few simple, nearly ineffective governing NASCAR rules or to the crews and drivers themselves.

Some pundits have suggested the Earnhardt death could have been prevented had he used a newly designed safety mechanism called the HANS Device, a sort of head and neck restraint system, but he and most other drivers consider the device too uncomfortable and refuse to wear it.

And NASCAR doesn't require it.

In the rest of the world, Formula One is the most popular form of auto racing and has been for many years. It is widely considered the crème de la crème of the sport, and the money involved overshadows NASCAR investment by ridiculous numbers. The speeds are similar, but the cars are more dangerous: Formula One cars have open cockpits while NASCAR's cockpit is enclosed; they have a small roll bar while NASCAR has large ones; they have huge racing tires exposed to danger while NASCAR's resides under a protective fender. Yet Formula One injuries and deaths pale in comparison to NASCAR's in the recent years. In fact, there have been four NASCAR racing deaths in the last ten months, a very high and disturbing number.

We searched for the "why" and exposed this disturbing fact:

Formula One forces safety devices similar to the HANS Device and other serious safety requirements on their vehicles and drivers. The uncomfortable safety seats have been standard requirement for years, and the design and implementation of crash-worthy chassis are required by the governing body of Formula One. In addition, there is no American marketing force behind the European League near that of the NASCAR series, and American television networks aren't interested and, therefore, aren't pressing for good ratings.

Is NASCAR becoming the WWF of auto racing? Is it damn the safety, let's make money?

Not quite, but dangerously close.

A massively popular American sport willing to re-tool itself while so close to huge profits from the networks is nearly unthinkable. When the XFL was created from NFL ideals, safety rules were relaxed in lieu of more excitement and attracting a large network audience. Why? We hardly need say it.


Does NASCAR have to lose more of its bright shining stars to re-think safety? Fearfully, probably so.

Even more fearfully…perhaps even that loss will make no difference.

March 2001

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