Drivers, automakers discuss racing safety as Daytona 500 approaches

Tuesday, February 12th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) _ Former race car champion Parker Johnstone was fearless during his winning career, but he says he didn't know how scared he should have been until he reviewed the safety of U.S. race tracks.

``There are no standards in the United States for any tracks,'' he said at an industry conference Monday at DaimlerChrysler AG's U.S. headquarters.

He said he found tracks with concrete barriers, grass runoff areas, and even one track with a lake next to a straightaway that carried racers at more than 185 mph ``because it looked good on TV.''

``Circuits are modified only after fatalities and lawsuits,'' said Johnstone, who didn't mention any tracks by name.

A spokeswoman for Troy, Mich.-based CART said Tuesday that no one was available for comment.

Johnstone's comments came as the racing world still is trying to come to grips with a string of fatal accidents, including the one at last year's Daytona 500, where legendary NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt died in a crash in the final lap.

``It is inherently dangerous, but you can still make it safer,'' said three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Johnny Rutherford.

Two-time Indy 500 winner Gordon Johncock agreed, but said no matter what safety devices or rules are installed, there is no way to totally prevent serious crashes.

``You're always going to have that freak accident,'' Johncock told those gathered at the Society of Plastics Engineers International Automotive Safety Conference.

After Earnhardt's Feb. 18 death, which was caused by a skull fracture after his car hit a wall, the sport known for the bravado of its drivers began taking a closer look at safety _ head trauma in particular.

There was renewed interest in what's known at the HANS device, which limits the movement of the driver's head.

The device's inventor, Robert Hubbard, said drivers are reluctant to use something they believe will limit their movements or affect their performance.

Between 1990 and 1999, the first ten years the HANS device was available, Hubbard said only 200 were sold.

In 2000, the CART circuit mandated use of the HANS in certain types of cars. Some 300 were sold that year.

After Earnhardt's death, CART mandated the device use in all of its racing series, and sales zoomed to 1,500, Hubbard said.

``It takes a long time to get drivers to accept safety,'' he said.

Lear Corp.'s motorsports arm invented an ``extractable'' seat, which became mandatory in 1999. In 2000, the Southfield-based company debuted an updated version called APEX, which consists of inner and outer shells, a multi-section head guard and energy absorption material.

The extractable seat makes it easier to remove a driver from a wreck.

CART also has a multi-million-dollar trauma unit that travels to each event, said Ron Richards, former vice president of communications at CART.

Manufacturers are also looking at improving the ``crushability'' of a race car, said John Fernandez, director of Viper racing and performance vehicle operations at DaimlerChrysler.

By improving crushability, the race car would absorb more of the energy of a crash, further protecting the driver, he said.

``We're still learning what the body can take,'' said Dr. John Melvin, a racing safety consultant.

Rutherford, who suffered two broken arms in a racing mishap, said beyond improvements to race tracks, equipment and cars, rising speeds must be addressed.

``If I could do one thing for racing, I would slow down a little bit, but that's not going to happen,'' he said.