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Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Sometimes change requires a fallen star


DAYTONA BEACH — NASCAR´s biggest star died in a horrifying accident that sparked an intensive campaign of safety research and improvements in stock-car racing´s top series.

Thirty-seven years before Dale Earnhardt´s death led NASCAR to re-examine its safety standards, the racing-related death of Glen “Fireball” Roberts led to a similar safety campaign in 1964.

Roberts, who called Daytona Beach home, was severely burned during an accident in the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He suffered for six weeks before succumbing to his injuries on July 2, 1964.

Roberts was extremely charismatic and had national name recognition in a sport that was trying to bust out of its Southern root system.

The gruesome accident and Roberts´ ordeal were the catalysts for change in NASCAR´s top tour, then known as the Grand National Series.

Nine NASCAR drivers were killed in racing accidents during the 1960s, including three drivers who died on the asphalt at Daytona International Speedway.

The 1964 and ´65 seasons were particularly brutal for stock-car competitors, as NASCAR scrambled to find answers to a variety of safety concerns.

Joe Weatherly, who was one of NASCAR´s top draws in the 1950s, died at Riverside (Calif.) International Speedway, a road course, on Jan. 19, 1964, the first of an alarming seven deaths in a 22-month span.

The others in this deadly string were: Harold Haberling, NASCAR practice at Daytona, Feb. 21, 1964; Roberts at Charlotte; Jimmy Pardue, tire test at Charlotte, Sept. 22, 1964; Billy Drew Wade, tire test at Daytona, Jan. 5, 1965; Buren Skeen, race, Darlington, S.C., Sept. 13, 1965; and Harold Kite, race, Charlotte, N.C., Oct. 17, 1965.

Weatherly´s fatal injuries were blamed on his lap belt. The 41-year-old´s head apparently was thrust out the driver´s side window on impact with the wall, killing him instantly.

In 1964, NASCAR drivers had the option of a shoulder harness, similar to those of today, or a simple lap belt.

Just a day before he died, Weatherly told The Associated Press he preferred only a lap belt. He said he would “rather flap around in there.”

“I move around so much,” he said. “I´d rather have the freedom of a seat belt.”

NASCAR took away that freedom the following year, insisting drivers wear some sort of harness restraint.

Because Weatherly´s car offered no protection at the driver´s side window, NASCAR started looking at ways to keep a driver in the car during an accident. The sanctioning body developed window webbing, which was introduced in 1971 and is still used today.

NASCAR, which has been based here since its creation in 1947, has a long history of reacting to safety issues that come with advances in speed technology, a fact that NASCAR president Mike Helton talked about in the months following Earnhardt´s death in 2001.

“Nothing we do can bring back those that we´ve lost as part of our sport,” Helton said. “We can, however, learn from those losses and honor them in what we do moving forward.”

Roberts paid the ultimate price during the safety evolution of the 1960s. His death numbed the racing community and sent this town and nation into mourning.

Roberts was a promoter´s dream. He was good looking and took the same approach to racing and life -- charge hard from start to finish.

After piling up 33 Winston Cup victories, including the 1962 Daytona 500, Roberts had a legion of fans.

At 35, Roberts was engaged, had money in the bank and was on top of the NASCAR racing world in 1964. Still, he was contemplating retirement from the sport after running wide open for more than 15 years.

He never got the chance.

Junior Johnson´s car spun into Ned Jarrett´s machine on the eighth of 400 laps at the track now called Lowe´s Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C.

While trying to avoid the wreck, Roberts swerved, tagged Jarrett´s car, then went into the wall. Roberts´ car, a powerful Holman-Moody Ford, wound up on its roof engulfed in flames.

Jarrett was the first on the fiery scene and heard Roberts´ desperate cry for help.

“Oh, my God, Ned,” Roberts shouted. “Help me. I´m on fire.”

By the time he was pulled from the wreckage, Roberts was severely burned over 75 percent of his body.

He fought the injuries for six weeks at Charlotte Memorial Hospital before going into a coma for two days, then succumbing to pneumonia.

This gut-wrenching episode sent NASCAR officials looking for answers to several safety concerns -- such as how fuel could be controlled better and how tires could be made safer.

NASCAR took fuel tank safety to a new level when it devised a rubber fuel bladder that fit inside the cell.

If the fuel tank took a severe hit, most of the gasoline would be contained inside the bladder rather than pouring out of the car and creating a fire hazard for drivers.

NASCAR also took a hard look at what drivers were wearing. Many were still racing in T-shirts and dungarees. In the second half of the 1960s, drivers had to wear fire-retardant overalls and carry fire extinguishers inside the cockpit.

Unfortunately, two drivers lost their lives in the quest for safety knowledge.

Pardue and Wade volunteered to help develop a tire that wouldn´t go completely flat if punctured, thus giving a driver a chance to bring his car under control.

Tire testers had nerves of steel, knowing each test run could be their last. Goodyear and Firestone were both heavily involved in NASCAR racing in that era.

The test pilots would get their cars to race speed, then purposely puncture a tire to test a safety design. Goodyear developed the inner-liner, or a tire within a tire, from tests like that. The inner-liner was mandated for use by NASCAR in 1966.

Some of this information was gained at a horrible cost.

Pardue´s accident was particularly grisly. He had a tire failure in Turn 3 at Charlotte, which propelled his Plymouth over the wall and down a hill outside the speedway at more than 150 mph, killing him instantly.

The inner-liner has likely saved dozens of lives since its introduction to stock-car racing during the 1965 season. These days people are not used in any sort of crash-testing experiments.

Around the mid-1960s, race teams started to build their own cars -- building the stock car around a sturdier roll cage -- rather than modifying existing showroom models.

During the last two years, NASCAR has taken racing safety concerns and its research to new heights after the loss of Earnhardt.

“Is´s my strong belief that we have been responsible in the area of safety,” Helton said. “We will continue to approach this with a firm belief that even in the sport where danger is inherent, any single death or serious injury is one too many.”

Special Report: 100 YEARS OF RACING
Traveling a long way from establishing land speed records, automobile racing has taken a different turn. Now, due west of the sands where racing began, sleek-bodied stock cars race on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway.


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