Ford Winston Cup drivers on safety, Part I

Part I: One of the major topics in NASCAR Winston Cup racing the past year has been safety. Since last year's Daytona 500, NASCAR has mandated the use of head and neck restraints, approved a new carbon-fiber composite seat, and instituted the use...

Part I:
One of the major topics in NASCAR Winston Cup racing the past year has been safety. Since last year's Daytona 500, NASCAR has mandated the use of head and neck restraints, approved a new carbon-fiber composite seat, and instituted the use of impact data recorders in all cars. Ford drivers spoke about these safety enhancements and what they mean to the sport.

JEFF BURTON --99-- Citgo Taurus

WHAT ABOUT THE SAFETY MEASURES SINCE LAST YEAR? "There's been a tremendous gain in safety issues. The effort and dedication to making not only the race cars but the racing environment safer is there. We are in the infancy of a program that is gonna take a while to produce a lot of results. You just don't do these things overnight, but the main thing is that the commitment is there and the dedication is there and that's how it all starts."

WAS THAT KICKED UP A NOTCH AFTER WHAT HAPPENED HERE LAST YEAR? "Oh, no question. That was a ball rolling slowly and then after what happened last year with Earnhardt, that ball got going at a much higher rate. So, yeah, there's no question that last year sped it up, but it was going before that happened."

HAS THERE BEEN AN ATTITUDE CHANGE AMONG DRIVERS WITH REGARD TO SAFETY? "It's an attitude change from everybody. What I've said all along is that we can't just put this on NASCAR. We have a community here and we have to work together as a community and that's what we're seeing today -- drivers, car owners, sponsors, manufacturers, NASCAR -- we're all working together to make it better. NASCAR has made a huge financial and time commitment to making it that way, but they're still relying on us to help them and that's the way it ought to be. I think we've got to do it together and we're certainly headed in that direction."

HOW MUCH SAFER IS THIS SPORT? "That's a tough question. Certainly today, every driver has a head and neck restraint of some sort. Almost every driver has got a better seat with better head support systems in the event of an incident. Every driver has harnesses in their car that are positioned better than what we had. There have been a lot of improvements, but it's still a dangerous sport. You don't strap yourself into something that's going 200 miles an hour and think it's not dangerous because it is. My fear is what happens if someone gets hurt with all the safety stuff. Is everybody gonna flip out about it? This is dangerous. It doesn't need to be anymore dangerous than it has to be. We've got to make things as safe as we possibly can and we are much safer today than we were 12 months ago."

DO YOU FEEL THAT WHEN YOU GET IN A CAR? "Let me say this, I've never gotten in a car doing something that I knew was dangerous. I don't feel safer today than I did last year because I felt safe last year. When you look back on things, you know how you look back at your mom's car that she took you to school in and you think, 'Man, I don't even know how that car got me to school,' but at the time it wasn't a big deal. Now you've got a brand new car, you get in there and it's got fuel injection and all that stuff, and you didn't know you were driving in a piece junk. You thought that thing was cool. It turned into a piece of junk because evolution and development made it a piece of junk. That's what happens with safety. We don't sit in stuff that we think is dangerous. We're always sitting in what we think is safe, but we find out through testing and through time that there's a better way to do it. I broke my back in a race car because I didn't do something properly, but I didn't know it wasn't done properly. I thought I had done everything correctly, so you learn how to do things and that's why education is so important. The smarter you are, the better choices you can make for yourself and then that's how we make things safer."

HOW ABOUT CREWS WEARING HELMETS? "Helmets and firesuits, I'd like to see everybody on pit road have a firesuit on. My wife would kill me because I'd make her wear one. I think that if you're on pit road, you ought to have a firesuit on. I mean, why not? Everybody needs to have firesuits on and everybody needs to be as safe as they possibly can be. There's nothing wrong with any of that."

SAFETY ADVANCES MAY NOT BE AS RECOGNIZABLE IN THE FUTURE. DOES THAT MEAN NOTHING IS BEING DONE? "I think it's important to understand something about safety and this is what's so difficult about safety in anything -- not just motorsports -- is that it never can stop. You can't build a kid's bicycle helmet good enough, it can always be better. So, as we learn things and as we try things, we will continue to make this sport safer, but it can only be done with information such as the black box and a continued effort to make it better. But it can't stop. And even when it looks like, 'Man, we've leveled off and we aren't making things better,' we probably are learning things and we probably are making it better."

IS THE PERCEPTION NASCAR IS GOING TO MOVE FORWARD THE BIGGEST CHANGE FROM PREVIOUS YEARS? "I think the biggest change is the willingness, and I used the word proactive 14 months ago, and that's it. Now, they're not a reactive company, they're trying to be a proactive company when it comes to safety and that is a huge change from where they were and it's a positive change. When we start preventing things from happening, rather than making them not happen again, that's the process we've got to be doing."

DALE JARRETT --88-- UPS Taurus

HOW DOES IT FEEL IN THE CAR WITH A LOT OF THESE NEW SAFETY ENHANCEMENTS. CAN IT BE CUMBERSOME? "I think you're certainly a lot more enclosed now. You've got more padding around you and supporting you, and I think they're all good things. I've brought this up a number of times to NASCAR, but I'd like to see us really think seriously hard and work in a little quicker fashion of getting a roof hatch installed in these cars so we can go out the top if something should happen or if a fire should take place. That allows us to get out much quicker than trying to get everything unhooked and get out the window because that could become a problem. I like my chances with the safety devices that I have to keep me safe during most crashes. If a fire happens, then I have to look at that and try to get out as quick as I possibly can. I think a roof hatch would really make everybody feel a lot better and I hope that's a direction that we look at very soon. But, right now, I feel like what we've implemented is for the betterment of our safety in 95 percent of the crashes. We see so very few times that fire actually happens and is a problem with us anymore, and I certainly hope that's not the case before we get to the point that we can rectify that problem totally."

DO YOU FEEL SAFER NOW IN THE CAR? "Much safer. I know when I get in my car that I have all of the best safety devices that are out there right now and we continue to work. But it's amazing how much safer I feel inside my car knowing that with any impact I can pretty much withstand that and my body is gonna be able to withstand that and I'll be able to show up at the next race."

WILL SAFETY ADVANCES BE HARDER TO SPOT IN THE FUTURE? "I think we have to understand now that it's almost like building a house. You see how it goes from the foundation and how everything goes up quickly and you really feel like you've moved to a good point, and then once you kind of get things under roof, the rest of that takes a lot of time to really see the finished project and that's the state that we're in now. We have the house built, the framing is done and the roof is on. Now, we're kind of finalizing the interior of it and it's to the point now where you're not gonna see a lot of things going on. There is a lot of work happening. The manufacturers are still totally involved in helping us make these cars and the driver's compartment safer. NASCAR is doing many, many things that everybody won't see and know about until we have a finalized product there. So, it is gonna be slower, but the public and the media doesn't need to think that we've stopped working because we haven't. I've talked to Mike Helton and Gary Nelson almost on a weekly basis about things going on, so we can assure you and the fans that we're not stopping. Just because you're not hearing about something new happening right now, we haven't stopped working. I think that's the one thing that we have learned from this.

"Where we were very comfortable with what we had before, now we know that we made such huge progress in less than a year's time that we feel very comfortable once again with what we have, but not to the point that we're gonna say, 'Okay, we're good enough right now. Let's not do anything else.' We have a lot of projects going on and I think as long as we continue -- and I see that happening between the drivers and the crews and NASCAR and the manufacturers -- that we're still headed in a very good direction to continue to make it safer."

Part II

-ford-

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About this article
Series Automotive , NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Mike Helton