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NASCAR Steps Up Safety Efforts After 2002 Revelations

Posted February 13, 2003

— Safety has been a hot topic on the Winston Cup circuit since

Dale Earnhardt

was killed in a crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Earnhardt's death led to several changes geared to make NASCAR racing safer. But, as the 2002 season showed, there still are issues to address.

Sterling Marlin,

NASCAR'S leading driver through most of 2002, saw his season cut short by a neck injury.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.,

one of racing's brightest stars, suffered a concussion and didn't tell anyone.

Rick Mast,

a veteran racer, had to retire after suffering carbon monoxide poisoning.

So, in spite of the inroads regarding safety made in the past two years, safety remains the top priority at NASCAR's Research and Development Facility in Charlotte.

"The biggest portion of our team goes to making the sport safer," said Gary Nelson, director of the facility, which opened in December of 2002. "We'll study every issue and make recommendations. That's what we're all about."

Nelson's agenda, which already included head injuries and restraint systems, now includes carbon monoxide. The effects of carbon monoxide on the drivers has been a big topic since Mast's retirement announcement.

But even though NASCAR has shown a commitment to protecting its drivers, the drivers know there will always be risks.

"It's racing," Marlin said. "Injuries are part of it, like football. It hurt to miss the end of the season. But we'll be all the more determined this year."

Marlin's September neck injury was a million-dollar accident. After the crash, his team fell from first to 18th in the season standings.

Marlin can't reclaim any of the lost prize money. But he can and will change his head and neck restraint system.

"I'm going to wear the Hans Device," Marlin said. "I used the Hutchens last year and switched after I had my wreck at Richmond.

"I liked the way the Hutchens felt - more secure. I was worried about it being uncomfortable. But I didn't even know I had it on."

Prior to Dale Earnhardt's death at Daytona, drivers were not required to wear head-and-neck safety devices, and very few did. A couple of weeks later, all the drivers except Tony Stewart opted to put them on - Stewart claiming that the protective device coupled with his claustrophobia just made him too uncomfortable.

A couple of weeks after that, NASCAR made head-and-neck restraints mandatoruy equipment any time a driver had his car on the track.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was also hurt last season but kept on racing with a head injury. He did not make the injury public hoping to avoid the questions his teammate,

Steve Park,

faced after his more severe head injury.

Park wrecked during a Busch race at Darlington when his steering wheel came off as the cars were on a caution lap. He missed the rest of the season.

"If I didn't have immediate success, everyone would have blamed the injury," Earnhardt, Jr. said of his concussion. "I didn't want to have any questions about it."

Park said drivers who crash should be tested for head injuries.

"From my injury and Dale's, I think it's clear we would all benefit from a neuro-psych test," Park said. "It's going to be beneficial."

Park added that getting a baseline measurement is imperative.

Mast, meanwhile, also has picked up the call for NASCAR to pay more attention to safety. His issue doesn't involve injury, but sickness.

"After a race, you'll be sick," Mast said. "You've been gassed all Sunday, and you have a Monday hangover. You're just not feeling worth a darn."

Mast knew other drivers suffered from the after-effects of too many fumes, so he didn't worry about his post-race hangovers, until flu-like symptoms set in.

He later was diagnosed with carbon monoxide poisoning. He no longer can drive a race car and must limit his exposure to exhaust.

NASCAR believes this problem is Mast's alone. But it will study the effect of gas at the track:

"Is it worse now than it used to be 10 or 15 years ago? I don't know," Mast said. "It's important that NASCAR document what's taking place, so in the future we'll know what the gas levels used to be."

NASCAR'S history on the track, the exploits of drivers, has been carefully recorded. In coming years, so may injuries and what NASCAR is doing to minimize them.

Among the goals for the Research and Development Facility is testing car crushability and cockpit airflow.

Though the purpose of the center is to formulate and test ideas, Nelson said the race track remains the only true laboratory.

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