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Original Issue

Inside Motor Sports


In-helmet microphones have contributed to the injuries of at
least two Winston Cup drivers in the past eight months,
prompting Simpson Race Products, NASCAR's biggest supplier of
safety equipment, to rethink the design of the area of its
helmet that protects the lower jaw.

It might seem that two broken teeth and a split lip were the
least of rookie Steve Park's worries after he also suffered a
broken femur, collarbone and shoulder blade in a crash in
Atlanta on March 6. Or that David Green's broken tooth was
nothing compared with the broken shoulder blade that also
resulted from his wreck at Bristol last August. Still, NASCAR
drivers are the most visible representatives of companies
putting up as much as $7 million to sponsor a team, and a
spokesman with a smile like a hockey player's doesn't cut it.

When they suffered those mouth injuries, Park and Green were
wearing full-face Simpson helmets with radio microphones
supplied and installed by Racing Radios. The disk-shaped
microphones, mounted on the inside of the lower jaw piece, are
an inch wide and half an inch thick and weigh almost three
ounces. Because the inside of a running Winston Cup car is so
noisy, drivers place their mikes right up against their mouths
to ensure that their teams can hear them, and that's what causes
the problem. Should the helmet hit the steering wheel, the mike
could go into the driver's teeth.

To accommodate mikes more safely, Simpson is working on a new
piece of helmet padding. "It's about an inch and a half thick,
and there's a hole in the center into which the microphone can
be recessed," says Bill Simpson, owner of Simpson Race Products.

Another possible solution is to let drivers take their chances
with the open-faced helmets favored by tough guys like Dale
Earnhardt. Drivers who use these helmets leave their jaws
exposed, but their mikes haven't caused dental problems.

Taming the Taurus

NASCAR may soon have a standard body configuration for all
Winston Cup cars, regardless of make. A hush-hush effort to
research such a move is under way at the compound of Richard
Childress Racing, which fields Chevrolets for Dale Earnhardt and
Mike Skinner. Engineers are studying the three models now
competing in Winston Cup: the Pontiac Grand Prix, Ford Taurus
and Chevrolet Monte Carlo. The goal is a standard body so that
there can be one template used to measure every car's silhouette.

Uniformity is the only logical way to end the bickering about
which make has an aerodynamic advantage despite NASCAR's efforts
to maintain parity by constantly changing car specifications.
The standardization would cut the expense that comes with
rebuilding cars to meet new rules.

On March 1 at Las Vegas, Tauruses swept 13 of the first 14
positions; NASCAR responded by reducing the height of the
Taurus's spoiler, which affects the aerodynamic downforce that
improves driver control through turns. A week later Bobby
Labonte won at Atlanta in a Pontiac, but Tauruses still finished
second through ninth; NASCAR whacked two inches off the width of
the Ford's spoiler. On Sunday, in the TranSouth 400 at
Darlington, Tauruses led every lap in a race won by Dale
Jarrett. Jeff Gordon got Chevrolet back in the hunt by finishing
second, but Tauruses took seven of the next eight positions.

Even Jarrett, who apparently benefits from Ford's advantage,
favors the change: "Let's all just go race--and stop bitching."

Formula One

The last time Honda was involved in Formula One, it ruled the
worldwide circuit. Cars powered by Honda engines won 69 Grand
Prix races and five world championships from 1984 through '92,
mostly because the company poured a then staggering $50 million
a year into engine R and D. But, saying it had nothing left to
prove, the deep-pocketed manufacturer quit the sport six years

So is the planned return of Honda to F/1 in '99 striking fear in
the competition's heart? Hardly. Nowadays Mercedes-Benz spends
$50 million a year on F/1, as do Peugeot and Ferrari. The
investment is paying off for Mercedes, whose engines are
currently in a league of their own. McLaren-Mercedes teammates
Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard lapped the field en route to a
one-two finish at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix on
March 8.

But if Honda wants to up the ante, it could run engine
development costs as high as $75 million annually. If the
company follows through on plans to build cars as well as
engines for the 2000 season, F/1 team budgets reaching $150
million--compared with $90 million today--may be right around
the corner.

COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND MOUTHING OFF Earnhardt's helmet (left) keeps the mike away; Park's puts it near his mouth. [Dale Earnhardt]

COLOR PHOTO: SAM SHARPE [See caption above--Steve Park wearing radio microphone in helmet]


The weight, in tons, of the equipment CART will haul to Motegi,
Japan, for the inaugural Budweiser 500 on March 28. The $60
million cargo, which fills three MD-11 FedEx aircraft, includes
58 race cars and supplies ranging from tools to spare engines to
team caps.