Amid a flurry of yellow flags in Bristol, both Tony Stewart and
Jeff Gordon were winners
Conspiracy theorists around the NASCAR garages--and there are
plenty these days after Kevin Harvick's win at Atlanta in March
and Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s victory at Daytona in July--love to note
that fans have been treated to more storybook endings this year
than a four-year-old with insomnia. If the sanctioning body has
been determining finishes, however, it blew a great chance to
cook up a sentimental victory in the Sharpie 500 at Bristol
(Tenn.) Motor Speedway last Saturday night.
Four years ago to the weekend, Elliott Sadler was racing in the
Busch series Food City 250 the night before the track's Winston
Cup race. As Sadler crossed the stage for driver introductions he
shook hands with Miss Food City, Lisa Tollett. Sadler was so
smitten that he asked his p.r. rep to get Tollett's number. The
first digits she gave were wrong--she later claimed it was an
accident--but Sadler finally got in touch with her, and they began
dating. Last Thursday, upon returning to Bristol, Sadler
proposed. "I heard some great ideas for how to do it," he says.
"You know, put [the ring] in a wine bottle and get her drunk
first, and then the ring's at the bottom so surely she'll say
yes. Stuff like that." In the end he chose the conventional
approach and dropped to one knee. Tollett, who now also answers
to Miss Tennessee, said yes.
A fitting end to the tale would have been a win for Sadler, who
picked up his first career victory in the Food City 500 at
Bristol in March. Alas, Sadler, who started fourth, finished
11th, largely because of his inability to keep his nose out of
trouble. If Saturday's race had in fact been a storybook, it
would have been called Oh, the Carnage You'll See. The caution
flag flew 16 times, and one lucky fan left the race with two
large chunks of a front fender as souvenirs.
Of course, contact is nothing new at Bristol, a half-mile
bullring where anything can happen. (Last Friday night, in the
Busch race, Harvick was two laps down after 83 of 250 laps but
came back to win.) In March, Jeff Gordon bumped Tony Stewart on
the last lap to overtake him for third place, prompting Stewart
to ram Gordon's car on pit road after the race. The two were much
more civilized this time around. Stewart glided past Gordon with
69 laps to go, and when the race stayed green until the finish,
he took advantage of his Pontiac's marvelous performance on long
runs. "The car could never come on until 20 or 30 laps into a
run," said Stewart, "and [before the last 89 laps] we couldn't
seem to stay green that long."
Stewart held off Harvick and Gordon for the win, but Gordon was
victorious too. He finished third and stretched his points lead
to a season-high 308 over runner-up Ricky Rudd with 12 races to
go. Both he and Stewart went off into the night with the look of
men who will live happily ever after.
The Earnhardt Aftermath
No Simple Solutions
On Aug. 21, NASCAR released a 342-page report from its
investigation into the death of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona last
February. According to the report, when Earnhardt's seat belt
broke, he hit his head in the cockpit and died from the impact.
Lawyers for Bill Simpson, whose company manufactured the belt,
immediately criticized NASCAR for not pointing out that Earnhardt
had a penchant for wearing his safety belts looser than
recommended, which could have caused the break. That triggered a
war of words between Simpson and team owner Richard Childress,
for whom Earnhardt drove. Said Childress in hopes of ending the
dispute, "We now all owe it to Dale, Dale's family, friends and
fans to bring this matter to closure."
But attaining closure isn't going to be easy. For all its charts,
diagrams and explanations, NASCAR's report didn't pinpoint a
single cause of the fatality. The seat belt was merely a
contributing factor, along with Earnhardt's collision with Ken
Schrader's car and the angle at which Earnhardt's car hit the
wall. Although NASCAR announced that each car will carry a crash
recorder next year and that the organization will work to improve
track medical facilities, it took no other steps to prevent fatal
crashes in the future. In explaining the decision not to require
drivers to use a head-and-neck restraint (which Earnhardt wasn't
wearing), CEO Mike Helton said, "We are still not going to react
for the sake of reacting."
Taking a more proactive stance is H.A. (Humpy) Wheeler, the
61-year-old owner of Lowe's Motor Speedway. Last year he began
crusading for "soft walls," going so far as to drop a Cadillac
nose-first 60 feet onto a prototype wall in a demonstration for
the press. (The idea never really caught on.) His latest crusade
is for a new bumper that would dissipate energy in a crash.
When the Winston Cup circuit hit Las Vegas in March, Wheeler
stopped by the offices of Lew Composites, a company that
manufactures, among other things, high-end bicycle wheels that
Wheeler, an avid cyclist, has used. Wheeler and the company's
president, 38-year-old Paul Lew, found that they had both been
considering the virtues of having bumpers on stock cars. Aided by
Wheeler's NASCAR connections, Lew studied the effects of
collisions on race cars. For instance, the day after Joe
Nemecheck crashed nearly head-on into the wall during a test at
Dover (Del.) Downs in May, Wheeler brought Lew in to study the
wrecked car. As a result of such research, Lew Composites
designed the Humpy Bumper, a graphite composite mold that
attaches under the skin of the car, behind the nose.
Lew spent $2.5 million developing the bumper and says he has
4,500 pages of documents from tests showing that it significantly
reduces the g-forces the driver undergoes on impact. Helton says
NASCAR hasn't seen enough test results yet to know the potential
value of the bumper. One of the experts presenting the Earnhardt
report, injury-causation specialist James H. Raddin Jr., said
such a device might make matters worse in minor crashes because
it might cause cars to behave differently than the drivers are
Lew is an auto racing fanatic. The bumper is more than just a
product he wants to sell for $6,000; it's something he thinks can
make the sport he loves better. "This will be something like a
seat belt or a helmet," he says. That's a noble hope, but as has
been made abundantly clear of late, being the designer of safety
devices for stock cars isn't the easiest way to make a living.
John Andretti's Wanderlust
You Want to Drag?
After driving less than half of the 1994 NASCAR season for Petty
Enterprises, John Andretti left in '95 for the fledgling
Kranefuss-Haas team--and quickly realized his mistake. "By May, I
was calling up the King, begging to come back," he says. Richard
Petty finally relented and gave Andretti his seat back in '98,
and the two have been together since.
For the adventuresome Andretti, spending three years with one
outfit--and doing just one type of racing--has been a novel
experience. In 1993 he drove in the Indianapolis 500, the 24
Hours of Daytona, a top fuel dragster event, a series of go-kart
races against a team of Russians, a midget race and four Winston
Cup events and still found time to set a land speed record for
street-production cars on the Bonneville Salt Flats. (He got a
factory-built Subaru up to 178 mph.) In '94 he became the first
driver to run the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.
Andretti, 38, is happy as can be with Petty--for whom he has won
one race--and he's in no great rush to move on despite his natural
inclination to do so. "I was never patient," Andretti says. "My
dad [Aldo, twin brother of Mario] would tell me I'd trade a
headache for an upset stomach."
That doesn't mean he has lost his peripatetic side. His next
trick might be running in the 2002 Southern 500 in Darlington as
well as the NHRA Nationals, both of which are held over Labor Day
weekend. Andretti says he has been "goofing around with the idea"
for some time. "I'd have to get a lot of people to agree to it,"
It would be interesting, but it wouldn't be a lark; Andretti beat
defending series champ Joe Amato in the quarterfinals of his
first competition behind the wheel of a dragster. That was in
April 1993, when Andretti was in the midst of his rambling days.
"I wouldn't sign a contract with anybody that year," says
Andretti. "I'd look at my calendar and say, 'O.K., I'm open that
weekend.' It was a ball."
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT LABERGE/ALLSPORT Johnny Benson's Pontiac wound up 36th at Bristol, where sparks and caution flags were flying.
Kenny Brack, who was second in the CART points race at week's
end, will leave Bobby Rahal's team next year to drive for Chip
Ganassi, who also owns two Winston Cup cars. The 35-year-old
Brack, from Glava, Sweden, has expressed an interest in joining
NASCAR, which has never had a full-time European driver....
The Winston Cup race at Dover (Del.) Downs on Sept. 23 will be
renamed in honor of the Orioles' Cal Ripken Jr. Ripken is
scheduled to fly the 100 miles to Dover that morning to serve as
the race's grand marshal and then return to Baltimore for his
final home game that night....
Looking to boost attendance, the IRL will welcome Robbie Kneivel
to the Chevy 500 on Sept. 16 at Texas Motor Speedway. Kneivel
will attempt to jump his motorcycle over 20 race cars--backups,
in case he should damage one....
Two European Formula One venues are likely to lose their events
in the next couple of years as the circuit looks to branch into
untapped areas. Several Middle Eastern countries--including
Turkey and Lebanon--have expressed an interest in getting a
race, and Russia looks certain to host its first grand prix in