Tuesday, October 17, 2006

"Awesome Bill" Says NASCAR Fails On Safety

In his new book, 'Awesome Bill from Dawsonville: My Life in NASCAR,' former NASCAR Nextel Cup Series champion Bill Elliott sharply criticizes NASCAR for failing to address safety concerns. His comments have received heavy play in the racing media recently, and Elliott will join us next Wednesday (October 25th) to talk about the firestorm they have created. In advance of his visit, I thought it might be helpful to let you read some of what Elliott has said about NASCAR and its devotion to safety. The following excerpt is courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.

"Dale's death uncovered some skeletons in NASCAR's closet. I thought the organization's emotional and forceful reaction to Dale's tragic death highlighted its comparative lack of concern for other deceased drivers.

Remember, in years prior to Dale's passing we'd lost Adam Petty, Tony Roper and Kenny Irwin. No one rang any alarm bells when any of these guys died. No one called for investigations or softer walls, or HANS devices when these drivers died. But when Dale Earnhardt died, NASCAR went full bore, head over heels on safety.

Whenever there is an incident on a NASCAR track, whom ever may be involved, the incident ought to be investigated so that it never happens again. We ought not only address incidents that kill stars. Shame on NASCAR for letting a handful of good men die before finally addressing the problem after Dale died.

NASCAR had been urged for years to put black boxes — data recorders such as the ones you find in aircraft — in the cars. This would allow them to study the causes of serious accidents and work to prevent them. Black boxes only went into Cup cars in the last few years. If Dale had survived, it's likely other drivers probably would have been killed and no one would have cared. We all hate to see anyone injured or killed in a wreck, on track or off.

I'm a realist — if it's your time, it's your time — but we need to do everything we can to prevent wrecks and to provide top-notch care for those guys who do wreck. Fans would be shocked to know how poor basic first aid is at many NASCAR tracks. Since emergency care is the responsibility of local track owners, the level of care is very inconsistent. I know of one serious wreck in recent years — I'll omit the track and the driver's name — where so many track workers crowded the car that the EMTs could barely get to the driver. It was mass confusion.

I've been in so-called safety meetings where all it is, is a Joe Blow local EMT who works that particular race because he gets a hot pass. This is a true story: I had a guy after a wreck one time, a paramedic, who was riding with me in the ambulance. On the way to the hospital he actually asked me to autograph my oxygen mask for him. When I got hurt at Talladega the EMTs pulled me out of the car like I was weed. With the injury I had to my leg they could very easily have torn my femoral artery and I would have bled to death in minutes. Granted they were trying their best, but there was so much confusion. I was begging for a little professionalism. In the June 2004 Busch race at Kentucky, Buckshot Jones smacked into the wall in turn 1 and it took forever for the rescue crew to get to him.

I'll irritate some people with all this, but I don't care. I'm at a point in my life and my career where safety is paramount. We should be on the leading edge of safety technology and be proactive about it. We could be the safest, most medically advanced outfit in sports. NASCAR should not delegate safety to track owners, when health care and technology companies would be lining up around the block to pay for the privilege of providing that care. No money would come out of NASCAR's pocket.

I know all this for a fact because after my crash at Talladega in 1996, NASCAR asked Cindy to join a committee that would examine medical care within NASCAR. She spent a full year on that project, and by the end of that year she had a doctor lined up who had agreed to take all the liability off NASCAR's shoulders. Furthermore, Cindy and the NASCAR Wives Auxiliary were going to fund a mobile trauma unit that would travel, a la IRL, to all Cup races. In addition to the latest diagnostic equipment, it would have the up-to-date medical files of every driver onboard. Amazingly it wasn't until 2002 that such records were even kept at Cup races. Until then, if a driver was in a crash and he had no family at the race, medical professionals had no insight into his medical history. There are known cases of drivers racing with shunts in their head from previous injuries. I know this sounds crazy, but it's true.

Clearly, the committee that Cindy was on had proven that we could easily have a unit like they have in Indy racing — a traveling team of a dozen or so trained specialists, including an emergency room physician — but NASCAR turned it down. They rejected both the doctor and the mobile trauma unit. We still don't know why. I think they felt that with such a unit there was still too much residual liability to NASCAR. That scares them. They simply don't want the liability of overseeing medical care, and as a result I think they want to mute the discussion on safety in general. If they brought in a fancy trauma unit, that would draw attention. They don't want to highlight the fact that racers are at risk or else they'd have to do even more. Instead they've been very successful at sweeping the risk under the rug. At each race every driver must sign a release form that waives NASCAR of any responsibility for injury or death sustained on the racetrack. As a result, no injured driver or driver's family has ever successfully sued NASCAR for damages.

In my opinion, if you can't afford safety, if you can't afford the little things that can save lives of drivers, crews, and fans, whether you're racing Saturday night jalopies or Sunday in Nextel Cup, you ought not be involved in the sport. The next step is knowing what to do and having enough trained professionals and an organization that can make the right decisions. That's why I think the concept of safety needs to be imbedded at the youngest possible level. We need young kids and the people running their tracks to cover all the angles. I'll give you an example. My son, Chase, is a budding go-kart racer. He was racing one night and a kid suffered a pretty bad broken leg. They didn't have an ambulance there. Fortunately the track got in a little trouble for it. They weren't open the next week.

I think NASCAR and the France family are sticking their heads in the sand. The IRL and CART have their own dedicated medical/rescue group that travels with the circuit; in fact, Cindy's proposal was modeled after the IRL plan. NASCAR leaves on-site medical care up to the individual racetracks. As a result you end up with a well-intentioned hodgepodge of local paramedics who have little knowledge of the specific safety and health issues that arise from 200-mph crashes and little personal knowledge of the drivers and their records.

NASCAR should have top-notch specialists who travel to every race. NASCAR has gotten better as far as driver history and medical problems and whether a certain driver was in a crash last week, but they're still dangerously short of their potential. In Indy cars, each car is equipped with cross-beam lasers that are beamed onto the driver's head. These beams monitor head movement as well as the amount of Gs endured in a crash. The medical technician sits in a rescue vehicle that's outfitted with dozens of TVs and computer monitors. The instant there is a crash, the technician knows which driver's head moved the most and which driver endured the greatest Gs. Before the rescue vehicle even gets to the victim, the emergency crew knows the likelihood and the severity of injury.

Several years ago in Germany, CART driver Alex Zanardi's car was split in half after he was hit in the middle of a spin. Dr. Steve Olvey, CART's longtime chief medical technician, was on the scene as he has been at virtually every CART race for the last quarter century. Zanardi, whose legs had been sheared off and who was bleeding profusely, was nearly dead when Dr. Olvey reached the car. But Olvey, who has dedicated his life to the care of drivers and the study of their crashes, made a lifesaving decision to skip the infield care center and fly Alex directly to a trauma center in Berlin. The quick decision making saved Zanardi's life.

NASCAR also needs to do something to make the interiors of our cars roomier. They are so small and so cramped inside that it's hard enough to get into them. Try getting out during an emergency — even with the roof hatches, it's virtually impossible. The old cars from the 1970s and 1980s used to swallow me whole. Now I'm wedged in. They also need to do something to these cars to help minimize the left-side impact. We sit on the left side of the car. If you hit the wall or another car with your front, rear, or right, you're probably going to be okay. You take a car or a wall into your left side, or land on your left side as I did at Talladega, and all bets are off.

NASCAR will tell you that the use of restrictor plates is a safety measure, and without a doubt it does enhance the safety of fans who no longer have to worry about cars launching into the grandstands, but I think they're actually using the cover of safety to manipulate the field into three-wide racing and closer finishes. In fact, you can make a pretty compelling argument that restrictor-plate racing causes more accidents because it congests the field. But three-wide racing and congested fields make for great TV. Plates have also changed the brand of driving, the brand of racing we do. Stock car racing used to be about just that — racing.

Today it's far more about blocking, and that has given rise to all the bumping and grinding we see and to the heated tempers that are now on display virtually every week. The intended results for restrictor plates — cars that will stay on the track and out of the stands — have been great. The unintended consequences have NASCAR looking more and more like hockey. I expect the same thing from the new rpm rule that came in 2005. Under this latest rule, NASCAR engines are limited to 9,500 rpm. While NASCAR may say the rule is designed to reduce the advantage held by the wide-wallet teams, it's really just another way to crowd the field together. By the way, where was NASCAR in the 1970s and 1980s and when we were fighting all the big-budget teams? They were legislating against us!

To their credit, NASCAR's done a good job lately of trying to enhance the restraint system. They've made the HANS device mandatory. They've put up the soft walls, and have taken a lot of credit for them even though the soft wall was really an IRL innovation. For a long time now our tires have had an inner liner to prevent or at least delay complete blowouts. We've removed doors; back in the old days doors would fly open during crashes exposing the driver to further injury. Sometimes they'd fly off and act as projectiles. Flaps on the roofs of NASCAR cars flip up the moment a car gets out of kilter. These flaps produce down force to keep the car on the ground. There is no glass on a NASCAR car. The windshield and right side and rear windows are made of Lexan, which is shatterproof. In fact, the headlights and brake lights on our cars are actually just stickers; there are no lights on NASCAR cars. Our fuel tanks or "cells" use flame-retardant technology adapted from Vietnam-era helicopters, and NASCAR has opened a facility devoted to safety R&D.

There's been belated progress but we've got a lot further to go. You can express your concern, but unless the media gets behind you, you won't get any attention. Will it take another Dale Earnhardt? Will NASCAR continue to soft-pedal safety issues and then take a few baby steps every time a driver is killed or seriously injured? They can't hide now as well as they could in the past because the sport is under a much stronger magnifying glass. They'll respond as the circumstance dictates. But they never have been, and I'm convinced they never will be, proactive. If you go back in history and look at the way NASCAR makes decisions, you will see that virtually every major decision they've made on safety and plenty of other issues has been after the fact. They're reactive. It wasn't until I had the pit crew guys get seriously hurt in Riverside and a crew guy killed in Atlanta that NASCAR saw the dangers inherent in stock cars screaming into heavily populated pits.

If fans only knew how thin NASCAR's protective measures truly are, they would be surprised. NASCAR not only leaves emergency care up to the individual tracks, it leaves decisions on personal safety equipment up to each driver. As of this writing, there is no rule requiring drivers even to wear gloves, fireproof or otherwise. Maybe I'm a little too outspoken on this, but I don't think you can be too extreme when it comes to safety. I think NASCAR should be on the cutting edge. If you're a premier sport, that's where you ought to be.

Dale's death probably could have been prevented. As most fans now know, his seat belt broke. Initially many tried to place the blame on the seat belt manufacturer. Later we learned that the seat belt broke because it was not installed to the manufacturer's specifications. Odds are it was not worn to specs, either: Dale had a well-known habit of loosening his restraint under cautions. If NASCAR had been more stringent in seat belt inspections — checking the installation and security of the anchored end of the belt as well as the age of the belt — Dale would have stood a far better chance of survival.”

1 comment:

  1. Who knew he is so well spoken. Go million dollar Bill!