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Safety issues at forefront of racing

by Paul Newberry

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

In Texas, CART postpones a race when drivers balk at getting in their open-wheel cars because of worries they will pass out at more than 230 mph.

In California, NASCAR officials dispute a report that Dale Earnhardt's seat belt was intact following his fatal crash in the Daytona 500.

In Atlanta, a huge fireball erupts and two cars catapult off the track during a frightening Indy Racing League crash.

From coast to coast this weekend, safety was at the forefront of the world's fastest sport.

Championship Auto Racing Teams took the extraordinary step of canceling Sunday's Firestone Firehawk 600 at Texas Motor Speedway when drivers complained about staggering G forces on the high-banked track.

Kenny Brack won the pole for the race with a speed of 233.447 mph, and drivers were turning even faster laps in practice.

"The G forces were beyond what I could have ever imagined," said Michael Andretti, the biggest winner in CART history. "This is something we never thought of happening."

The drivers praised CART for heeding their concerns, which began when drivers reported being dizzy and disoriented in practice. What began with informal dialogue grew into virtual unanimity just hours before the scheduled start.

Dr. Steve Olvey, director of medical services for CART, said extended exposure to the high G forces raised the possibility of drivers losing consciousness during the race.

"I'm very proud of the fact that for once, the business side did not win," two-time CART champion Alex Zanardi said. "The board of directors and the president stood for what was right."

Also Sunday, The Orlando Sentinel reported that one of the first rescuers on the scene of Earnhardt's deadly wreck found the seat belt intact.

The recollection of Tommy Propst, an emergency medical technician, contradicts NASCAR's claim that the belt was broken in the Feb. 18 crash.

Propst also said no one from NASCAR has yet questioned him about what he found when he reached Earnhardt's car.

"If they're doing this big investigation and they wanted to know the truth, why wouldn't they interview the one that took the seat belt off?" Propst asked.

The NASCAR Winston Cup series was racing in Fontana, Calif., where director Gary Nelson disagreed with Propst's account.

NASCAR has refused to display the seat belt and hasn't said if the results of its own investigation by unidentified experts will be made public. The probe is expected to last throughout the summer.

"I don't know of anybody that does a big investigation and tells the world their conclusions on a daily basis until the investigation is concluded," NASCAR chairman Bill France told the AP.

The death of American racing's biggest star heightened concern about safety issues -- especially at NASCAR, which has endured four fatal crashes in the last 11 months.

Earnhardt, Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper died in similar fashion: a high-impact crash with a concrete barrier, resulting in a fracture at the base of the skull that caused massive internal injuries.

NASCAR has refused to mandate the Head and Neck Support (HANS) device, which is designed to prevent the sort of violent whiplash that apparently played a role in all four fatalities.

Nearly all Winston Cup drivers agree the HANS should be a voluntary safety device.

The Indy Racing League, which doesn't require the HANS either, got a big scare Saturday night while racing on a 1.54-mile quad-oval that has essentially the same design as its sister track in Texas.

A chain-reaction crash on lap 53 took out 11 cars and sent Jack Miller to the hospital with a concussion. Amazingly, everyone else walked away with just bumps and bruises.

It looked much worse. Miller's car erupted in flames, lifted into the air and was reduced to a small, battered shell when it came to rest near the start-finish line.

Robbie Buhl's car slid hard into the wall and caught fire. Casey Mears was launched over another car before his own machine slammed back down upright.

Two-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser Jr. had scuff marks on his helmet from tires and other pieces of debris that flew over his head.

"My car spun around, then I saw the wall coming at me," said IRL rookie Cory Witherill, whose car sparked the crash when it slowed with engine problems. "Another car flew over me. It was like something straight out of the movies."

The race was run under a yellow flag for 35 laps while workers conducted the massive cleanup job. Greg Ray eventually won the race, with only 13 of 27 cars still running at the end.

IRL cars are similar in appearance but have significantly less horsepower than the CART machines that were supposed to race in Texas.

Ray won the Atlanta pole at 218.265 mph, but the rest of the field was at least 2 mph slower. The IRL drivers reported no problems handling the G force on the 24-degree banking.

No so in Texas, which has the same degree of banking. All 22 drivers who ran more than 10 laps at a time in practice experienced some sort of inner ear or vision problems. The race was scheduled for 250 laps on the 1.5-mile track.

"The Gs were exceeding what the human body should be able to tolerate," Olvey said. "This is a situation that in my 25 years involved in motorsports I've never heard of or seen."

Eddie Gossage, general manager of Texas Motor Speedway, was critical of CART for failing to address safety concerns sooner. There was no open testing for the series' inaugural race at the Texas track.

The IRL has been racing there since the speedway opened in 1997 and has two events scheduled this year, including the June 9 Casino Magic 500.

"It should have been sufficiently tested months and months and months ago," Gossage said. "Both TMS and the fans are frustrated by what has happened."

This isn't the first postponement over safety.

A 1985 CART race at Michigan International Speedway was put off for six days because of tire concerns.

NASCAR stars struck over a similar issue before the inaugural race at Talladega, Ala., in 1969. France brought in replacement drivers and the race also was completed without major problems.

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