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Some Racing History

Ok – I’ll admit that my interest is history is all across the board. Automobile racing, for instance, isn’t really my cup of tea, but I can’t avoid NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) as my roomie watches it and because any history-making event fascinates me. Take Jeff Gordon’s crash today, for instance, which almost made history as he wrecked his car on the same day that the Le Mans, France racing disaster took place in 1955. In the famous 24-hour Le Mans race, Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes-Benz crashed into stands filled with spectators, killing 82 people in a fiery crash. The tragedy led to a ban on racing in several nations.

Today (2006), Jeff Gordon destroyed his car in a frightening crash on Lap 190 of the Pocono 500. The wreck left Jeff Gordon with a massive headache and a spot outside the top 10 in points. “That was one of the hardest hits I have ever taken,” Gordon claimed. “Between the soft wall and the seat and the safety device, I never got knocked out and I was surprised that I feel pretty good.” Gordon appreciates that this crash might have injured him severely or even taken his life only a few short years ago…

Just five years ago, Dale Earnhardt ran interference for son Dale Jr. and one of his son’s teammates during the final lap of the Daytona 500 when he crashed into a wall at about 175 miles an hour. It was an accident that seemed like little more than a footnote to a pretty good race. But it was the crash that changed NASCAR, resulting in the instant acceleration of a safety program that probably needed a major upheaval.

One change in auto racing included the HANS (head-and-neck-support) device that virtually immobilizes a driver’s head and neck once he (or she) is strapped in. While the device was available since about 1986, Earnhardt was not wearing one the day he was killed. Some safety experts say he might have survived if he had been, as HANS helps to prevent basalar skull fractures. Earnhardt died instantly of head injuries. No Nextel Cup drivers have been killed on tracks since the HANS device became mandatory.

Another feature now incorporated at all Nextel tracks is the SAFER (steel-and-foam-energy-reduction) barrier developed by the University of Nebraska in 2002. This barrier consists of a soft, impact-absorbing wall around the inside of tracks that replaced unforgiving and unbending concrete or steel. This feature, along with the HANS, probably saved Gordon from an immediate physical disaster today.

Another result of the initiatives motivated by the Earnhardt tragedy will be visible at NASCAR tracks next season when the Car of Tomorrow (COT) is introduced, first at 16 of 36 events and in all Nextel Cup races by 2009. The changes, some controversial since they were first mentioned, will be mandatory. The Washington Post reports that NASCAR reports that COT will change the fact that an average driver can consistently finish better than a superior driver with a better aero package. COT will be boxier and, therefore, slower.

The goals of the COT are three-pronged: racing safety, better competition, and cost containment. So far, nobody argues with the first point, and the second point is slowly winning converts; however, the third has teams seeing a bottom line that doesn’t fit within most budgets. Whether drivers will drop out from racing because of cost is unknown, but if you’ve ever known a racer (and I have), you know that racing is in the blood. Where’s there’s a will, there’s probably a sponsor…

Yep – I’m not a racing fan, but I’m a huge fan of history in the making, and NASCAR is doing it for me today…

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