NASCAR copes with 4 deaths in 9 months

Neck braces. Soft walls. Special seat belts.

Such racing equipment is suddenly well known beyond the garage as NASCAR struggles to cope with four deaths in less than nine months, the latest a legend of the sport, Dale Earnhardt.

On Monday, NASCAR faced renewed questions about whether it's doing enough to protect its most valuable asset -- the drivers -- after the most devastating blow of all.

Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion, died Sunday from massive head trauma when his black No. 3 Chevrolet slammed head-first into a concrete wall on the final lap of the Daytona 500.

But the governing body of stock car racing has always moved deliberately with safety improvements, and NASCAR president Mike Helton made it clear such improvements won't be made just because the Intimidator is dead.

"We're not going to accelerate, we're not going to slow down," Helton said. "It's a work in progress all the time."

Ken Adams, manager of Hubbard/Downing Inc. in suburban Atlanta, is troubled by NASCAR's stance.

The company makes the Head And Neck Safety (HANS) device, which was used by only six drivers in the 43-car field on Sunday. Earnhardt wasn't among them.

"The most frustrating thing is he died of basilar skull fracture," Adams said. "That's what our device is designed to prevent."

Earnhardt's death in the season-opening race came after one of NASCAR's deadliest years.

Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and truck racer Tony Roper all died from fractures at the base of the skull or similar injuries.

"This is getting absurd," Adams said. "A Petty dying last year, Earnhardt dying this year.

"Those are two of the biggest names in racing history."

But Dr. Steve Bohannon, an emergency physician at Halifax Medical Center who also works for Daytona International Speedway, said there's no way to know if the HANS would have prevented Earnhardt's death.

An autopsy also was inconclusive.

"Even if you restrain the head and neck in this type of injury with the forces we're talking about -- hitting a concrete barricade at 150, 170 m.p.h. -- there's still one more element you have to address," he said. "Even if you restrain the body -- the head, the neck, the chest -- all those organs internally still move at time of impact."

Even so, several NASCAR teams contacted the Hubbard/Downing plant Monday morning to place orders for the brace, Adams said.

There was a call from Roger Penske's team, which has Rusty Wallace and Jeremy Mayfield as its drivers, and defending Busch series champion Jeff Green.

Adams said the plant was producing only three devices a week just a few months ago.

The output has been increased to four or five a day, and the company had 35 orders just hours after Earnhardt's death.

"It's unfortunate that it takes something like this to create such an interest in a device," Adams said.

The CART open-wheel series, which begins March 11, has already mandated the HANS system for oval-track races this year.

By next year, the Formula One series is expected to follow suit.

NASCAR, meanwhile, has tested softer walls, which could lessen the G-forces in a high-speed crash.

Helton said the technology would not work at high-banked tracks like Daytona.

"We've gone from tracks with no walls to wooden barriers to tire barriers to concrete walls," Helton said. "There may be a substitute for concrete, but we've not been able to find it yet."

Earnhardt himself chastised NASCAR for worrying that soft walls break apart too easily and require too much time to clean up during races.

"I'd rather they spend 20 minutes cleaning up that mess than cleaning me off the wall," Earnhardt told the Orlando Sentinel last week.

John Melvin, former head of safety at General Motors and now a consultant to NASCAR teams, said there's no foolproof way to make the sport safer.

He has been testing a new six-point, seat belt system that might provide additional stability for the body.

"The HANS only works if the restraint system works," he said. "There's no single thing going to solve this.

"It's going to be a combination of good things."

Melvin also noted that the HANS is designed mainly for head-on impacts.

Researchers are working on a device that would protect the head and neck when a car slams into a wall sideways.

Michael Waltrip, who won the Daytona 500 in a car owned by Earnhardt, said he doesn't plan to use the HANS for this weekend's race at Rockingham, N.C.

He will try it out on March 11 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, one of the circuit's fastest tracks.

"I have mixed emotions about it," a sombre Waltrip said. "I like the way it stabilizes your head in an incident.

"But it's also cumbersome and can make it hard to get out of the car. That's a concern, too."

Earnhardt, who wore an open-faced helmet and criticized NASCAR for its effort to slow speeds, never considered wearing a neck brace.

"I really think he would have lived with one," Adams said. "But Dale was always set in his ways.

"He was a great racer, but he just wasn't open to that option."

By Paul Newberry