Feb 24, 2003
Kudos to NASCARBy JR Nerad
Over the years this column has frequently taken NASCAR to task regarding the safety of its drivers. The Dale Earnhardt tragedy and other tragic deaths like it forced us to ask the question, "Is NASCAR doing all it can to protect what is arguably its most important resource, namely, its drivers?" We all know that racing can be a life-and-death sport, but in our opinion, particularly in the important areas of head-and-neck restraints and of chassis stiffness, NASCAR moved far too slowly in addressing safety issues.
Now, though, we are pleased to give credit where credit is due. It seems that in the last 12 to 24 months, NASCAR has turned a corner on safety issues, giving the problems credence and, more important, making strong efforts to improve safety for their drivers.
An important symbol in the sea-change at NASCAR regarding safety is the NASCAR Research and Development facility based in Concord, North Carolina, a stone's throw from NASCAR's spiritual heart, Charlotte. The sanctioning body opened the building just last month, and from the early reports it is far more than just a public relations exercise.
One of the R&D office's first priorities is to address what appears to be a major problem NASCAR drivers have always had with carbon monoxide poisoning. In the last four decades veteran race watchers have seen driver after driver removed from their cars after reportedly suffering "heat exhaustion." Now comes the word that many of those cases were actually carbon monoxide poisoning, an insidious, invisible killer that is the natural by-product of the internal combustion engine.
The early retirement of NASCAR driver Rick Mast sparked the inquiry. Last year he was diagnosed as suffering from chronic effects of prolonged carbon monoxide poisoning, and he was forced to quit driving because of it. Unfortunately, the effects of carbon monoxide often resemble flu-like symptoms, so the cause can go untreated for days, weeks, or even months.
Now, sparked by research completed at the R&D center, NASCAR thinks it has a solution for the carbon monoxide problem -- a small, low-temperature catalytic converter that will cleanse the deadly colorless gas from the driver's breathable air. The new system has yet to be deployed in a racecar, but we hope and pray that it works. And we congratulate NASCAR on its new, more active approach to driver safety.
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