Safety Effort Still "Full Speed" for Pontiac Teams and GM Racing
DETROIT, Mich., March 6, 2002 - Compared to a year ago, safety issues have shifted out of the public spotlight in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. However, work in the area of safety remains a number one priority for everyone involved, according to Pontiac crew chief James Ince and GM Racing's safety manager Tom Gideon.
NASCAR has taken several important steps in the past year alone, including the mandate of head-and-neck restraints for drivers, the mandate of helmets for "over-the-wall" crew members and the introduction of crash-data recorders, which are now standard equipment aboard a Winston Cup car.
As the series prepares for the fourth race of the 2002 season this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, both Ince and Gideon agree that the effort to improve on the safety of the sport continues with the same intensity it had in 2001.
Thoughts From James Ince, Crew Chief, No. 10 Valvoline Pontiac Grand Prix:
YOU DON'T HEAR AS MUCH ABOUT SAFETY ISSUES AS YOU DID A YEAR AGO...IS SAFETY STILL A FOCUS AT THE TEAM LEVEL? "Absolutely. Actually, I think it's kind of refreshing to know that the media isn't talking about it as much right now. We're never going to stop working on it. NASCAR is still working with us. I got another phone call from NASCAR as recently as Tuesday night to fill me in on some more things that are going on there with regard to safety. It's something that I don't think anybody has backed up on. It has kind of fallen out of the eye of the media, but it has allowed us to go to work on it harder without the 'public distraction.' "Everybody is still working as hard as they can to make these cars safer and safer. They've never been unsafe, but there is always room to make them better."
IN SOME WAYS, DID THE MEDIA HELP DRIVE SAFETY TO THE FOREFRONT? "I don't think they hurt it any. NASCAR was going to do some things, no matter what. I think it just helped expedite things. NASCAR spent a lot of money on our safety effort and without that, we wouldn't be as far along as we are."
IS THERE ANY ONE AREA THAT YOU ARE FOCUSING MORE ON RIGHT NOW? "Driver compartment is the most important part of everything we're working on. We continue to work on seats, we continue to look at belts, we continue to look at steering wheels. We're looking at everything around the driver because that is the area we care most about. We want to make sure the driver gets out of these things. That is something that we continue to look at and continue to try to get better. The things we do today won't be as good as the things we can do tomorrow."
DO YOU EVER EXPECT TO SEE SAFETY ENHANCEMENTS AFFECTING THE PERFORMANCE LEVEL ON THE RACETRACK? "I don't really see that ever happening. If it's ever something that affects the cars, it will happen across the board, so it won't matter. For sure, we will take safety over performance every single time. This year, for example, seats are 20 pounds heavier than they were last year. That has definitely affected our concept on building a car, but that is a tradeoff we want to make. There have been things like that that have changed or added up and have gone against what we used to try to do, but it's been a good tradeoff."
HOW HAS YOUR PIT CREW ADJUSTED TO WEARING HELMETS SO FAR IN 2002? "I don't think the guys dislike them at all. It's a good thing and it was something that needed to be done. It has definitely slowed pit stops down across the board for everybody in the garage area, but that's an OK thing. As long as we're all competitive, it works out OK.
"We're already looking at different helmets again. We're three races into the deal and the guys like them, but now we can look at a few more options. We went to the extreme and said, 'What is the safest thing we can possibly get on our head?' Now, we're working backwards and saying, 'Can we still be as safe with something lighter, something smaller, something different than what we've got?'
"The biggest thing that's changed is just the visual aspect of things. That's OK. The guys are getting used to it, but it's definitely different for them on pit stops."
Thoughts from Tom Gideon, Safety Manager, GM Racing:
IS SAFETY STILL A PRIMARY FOCUS IN THE WINSTON CUP SERIES? "It is and I think we're learning more than we had hoped to.
"I believe one of the biggest advances is the crash-data recorders they've put in the cars. I think NASCAR is getting more from that than they expected. They're learning quite a bit. If you had to set up and run tests to gather this information, it would cost you a fortune. But with the recorders, they're getting data every week during the course of regular competition.
"I think things are really moving along well. Now, we did have a problem this last weekend with Ricky Hendrick, who dislocated his shoulder at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (during a Busch Series event), so we're going to actively investigate that. We'll look at that data and see how everything performed. While it's unfortunate that we're talking about a dislocated shoulder and a guy that will be out for six weeks, had he not been the benefactor of all the safety advances that have been introduced, we might not be talking about a shoulder. It was a rather severe hit.
"I think the communication and the education are the two big, important parts of this thing. The drivers at the Winston Cup level are pretty well protected at this point. Now, I think we've got to move the message down the series where people are still searching and really don't know. I was at Homestead over the weekend, so I know how fatal motorsports can be.
"Progress is being made. I think the emphasis right now is to look at the data that we're getting from these cars and decide how we include that into the structural analysis that is on-going.
"The data is important, but I also think the drivers are much more educated and much more comfortable. That's an important parameter because if they're not comfortable, it's not going to work. I think they are in a comfort zone now where the initial fuss about this or that appears to be gone and we're all back to racing now. We're just seeing better outcomes.
"When I was in Daytona, I looked at the seats that the drivers have now. If you just take a one-year window - last year at Daytona to this year at Daytona - if you could lay all the seats out it would just be an unbelievable difference. "I'm real happy with what is going on. Now, I think the vision for the future is to try to get away from the 'reaction mode' and start asking, 'What could happen?' We need to start looking at the things that could happen, that don't happen very often and start asking, 'How do we protect drivers in those kinds of circumstances?"