The biggest racing news of the past week is NASCAR's reversal of its stand on head and neck restraints. Even in the light of four deaths attributed to basal skull fractures, the sanctioning body had steadfastly refused to mandate the restraint devices.
Pressure from the press and fans must have finally eroded the stonewall, because NASCAR announced last Wednesday that all competitors in its top three divisions (Winston Cup, Busch Grand National and Craftsman Trucks) would be required to wear head and neck restraints at all events. The requirement is in effect for today's Talladega race.
Interestingly enough, this puts NASCAR into a leadership position in one aspect of racing safety, as Formula 1 backed away from requiring the devices this season, IRL has no regulation regarding them, and CART requires them only at oval events.
NASCAR-approved restraint systems are the HANS device and the Hutchens harness, which have been judged comparable in the level of protection under observed conditions. In point of fact, NASCAR is merely recognizing that most drivers have adopted one or the other of the systems, with only a few not using them.
The most notable exception is Tony Stewart, who suffers from claustrophobia and has stated that he is not comfortable with either device. However, if he wants to continue racing in NASCAR, he now has no choice.
Although NASCAR did not say that failure to use a device could lead to disqualification, the threat is implied.
So is this ita NASCAR's lip service to safety improvements? Well, it doesn't look like it. The sanctioning body, which recently founded a Research and Development team to look into safety issues, is also studying seat technology, better safety harnesses, and impact absorption. Aluminum honeycomb and "foam," which has been used in monocoque chassis of formula and sports-racing cars for years is being investigated as well. Data recorders are also being evaluated. Curiously, one of NASCAR's prime criteria for these is that they be self-contained, with no wire connections to the race car, lest the teams be able to use the recorded data to gain a competitive advantage. As if teams aren't using even more sophisticated data recorders and analyzers in testing.
In open wheel racing, CART made its annual trek to Laguna Seca last weekend. Sadly, I was unable to be there in person. Laguna is one of my favorite race tracks, one I used to race on, and a challenging, exciting course. Unfortunately, the CART professionals turned it into a rather amateurish display of outlandish driving.
The capper was Paul Tracy's characterization of Chief Steward Chris Kneifel as a circus clown. I hope Paul got a lot of satisfaction from making that remark on national TV, because he paid a $50,000 fine for the privilege, as well as a two-race probation. He was charged with four instances of rules violations, including "criticism of officials," which was undoubtedly deemed more serious than his on-track transgressions of "unjustifiable riska" and "unsafe acts."
The other big story out of Laguna Seca was Ford's announcement (or reiteration) of its refusal to participate in CART's new 3.5 liter, normally aspirated engine program for 2003 and beyond. Ford, with an illustrious history at Indianapolis with Gurney/Westlake and Cosworth versions of Ford powerplants, has indicated a total lack of interest in further participation in Indy, CART, or IRL.
Ford Racing Technology director Dan Davis stated unequivocally, "As we stated before, our position is clear: We will not build an engine to any normally-aspirated specification for the 2003 season." That seems pretty clear to me.
MORE ON CHAMPION
Finally, you undoubtedly read the feature article by Rhonda Costa-Landers in last Sunday's Appeal concerning the management changes at Champion Speedway.
I had a meeting last weekend with the principals: Henry Hodges, Jim Bawden and new General Manager Jim Martin. They told me pretty much what Rhonda reported in her feature. Based on our conversation, I think the track has a great future, but still needs a little work in a few areas. Next week, I plan to rate the track's 2001 successes and challenges, along with comments from former GM/Promoter Les Kynett, if we ever quit playing phone tag.
Roger Diez is the Nevada Appeal motorsports columnist. He can be reached at Racytalker@aol.com.