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Investigative Reporting

Simpson is NASCAR's loss

Retired NASCAR driver Allen Smith knows what it is like to be on the track taking turns at high speeds, jockeying for the pole.

The Stockbridge resident also has very definite ideas about safety, responsibility and what could keep drivers safe in the wake of racing legend Dale Earnhardt's death.

He also says the politically charged atmosphere in his sport has forced a good man out, as his comments come on the heels of the recent resignation of safety expert Bill Simpson.

Simpson announced last week that he was resigning because NASCAR refused to take a meaningful look at the circumstances surrounding Earnhardt's death.

Smith agrees that safety and the February accident at Daytona Motor Speedway deserve a more thorough look.

Smith - who raced under his given name of Herman Smith from 1968 through 1984, the last four years as a competitor in the Grand American Challenge - charged that NASCAR doesn't want Earnhardt's death to sully its image.

Smith blames the deadly crash on the widespread use of restrictor plates.

“They don't want anything to smear NASCAR,” Smith said. “And they don't want anything to give restrictor plates a bad name. But without the restrictor plates he wouldn't have had Sterling (Marlin) right there at him. The field would've been more stretched out. The plates keep the speed down. It allows them to keep pace - that's why they're always bunched up.”

Forcing stock car drivers to install restrictor plates levels the playing field on a race track, Smith said.

Yet, he added, although restrictor plates were intended to make racing safer, the bunching up of drivers has had just the opposite effect.

“It lowers your horsepower, and consequently your speed, so the car won't go airborne,” he said. “But by doing so, it boxes up the field because everybody has pretty much the same horsepower. It's like putting a governor on trucks that limits them to 60 miles per hour. For racing, it's a safety precaution as it lowers the speeds to keep (the drivers) under 200 mph.”

Smith said Earnhardt told him he was against the use of restrictor plates.

“Earnhardt was one who said he didn't like restrictor plates,” Smith said. “Of course, because he was so successful, he had a lot of money behind him, so he could field cars with lots of horsepower. At the same time, he was a very talented driver.”

Simpson pioneered the development of fire-retardant suits for NASCAR drivers, and came up with a wide range of other equipment designed to make racing safer. Simpson envisioned using Nomex fiber to produce flame-retardant suits, and Smith said the suits really work.

“I've had probably 10 or 20 of his suits myself,” he said. “I have seen a person whose car was on fire and anything that wasn't covered in that suit melted like wax.”

Most recently, Simpson was working on a less-expensive head and neck harness that would drastically lower the cost of the harnesses available to NASCAR drivers today.

Smith said he thinks one drawback to the current head-and-neck harness is that it limits a driver's mobility.

“It limits your movement, and the use of it means it takes longer to get you out of your car if your car was on fire,” Smith said.

Smith - who now owns and operates ATS Center of Stockbridge, a business that rents cars, trucks and storage units - said he hopes professional drivers aren't shortchanged because Simpson resigned.

“I think all the drivers are going to use the stuff,” he said. “It's just a political thing. They don't want to give the sport a bad image. And they have enough flak already about the restrictor plates now, they don't want anything else. It's just racing. You take your life in your hands.”

Shortly after Earnhardt's death at the Daytona 500, NASCAR officials announced that rescue workers found one of Dale's seatbelts in two pieces, stunning the media and humiliating Simpson, who said he wanted something constructive to come out of the investigation into Earnhardt's death.

“Dale broke his neck several years before and had surgery,” Smith said. “Every time you're in your car your life is on the line.”

While continuing its ongoing investigation into Earnhardt's death, NASCAR has repeatedly rebuffed Simpson's attempts to learn what part, if any, his company's parts had to do with the tragedy.

Simpson's big heart is legendary in racing circles, Smith said. He often provided safety equipment to drivers who couldn't afford it. The racing world is the big loser with Simpson's departure, he added.

“Certain people are a certain way,” Smith said. “I don't care what type of business you're in, certain people have hearts and certain people don't.”

Smith said that, to NASCAR, it's simply business as usual.

“They're just protecting themselves,” he said. “They want everyone to think things are rosy.”

NASCAR's new
safety measures

With several high profile deaths on the Winston Cup circuit over the past two years, most drivers welcome the changes NASCAR has instituted or is examining.

“I think every change they've made has been a plus,” commented Kyle Petty whose son, Adam, died in a wreck last year. “I think they've put a lot of thought and a lot of homework into the issues. I don't think you need a knee jerk reaction on anything. I don't think there's anything they've done since February that I disagree with.”

One of those new requirements is the NASCAR mandated use of head-and-neck restraints.

“They should've been mandatory,” Petty said. “I think NASCAR did the right thing and I applaud them for stepping in. They did their homework, sent it overseas and tested it. Formula One and a lot of other sanctioning bodies already had implemented it.”

Driver Mike Wallace predicted that Winston Cup drivers would quickly adapt to using the restraint system - even driver Tony Stewart, one of the few drivers who criticized the move.

“I'm willing to bet that everybody will quickly accept it,” he said. “By the end of the season I think even Tony will buy off on it. Now, I haven't talked with him about it, but that's my sense.”

Michael Waltrip - winner of this year's Daytona 500 where Dale Earnhardt perished - said he doesn't think eliminating restrictor plates would make racing appreciably safer.

“To a great extent it doesn't matter what they do,” he said. “The media and the fans don't understand that they wouldn't like the races at Daytona and Talladega if we were all running 220 miles-an-hour in a spread out field.”

Waltrip said restrictor plates don't impact Winston Cup racing teams regardless of whether or not they've got substantial financial underwriting.

“People just wake up one day and say, `Look at what happened at Talladega. Shoot, we better do something.' It only really becomes a problem when you run into somebody because everybody running in the draft are involved because it's so tight. It isn't the racing, it's just what happens when something goes
wrong. Everyone's involved. There are no good answers.”

But Petty said recent NASCAR proposals to alter the use of restrictor plates at the super speedways such as Daytona and Talladega could make driving safer.

“I think it's a positive step - a plus,” he opined. “It takes a lot of the decision making and puts it into the drivers' hands. I think the restrictor plates took a lot of that away from the driver. I think past practices have taken a lot of that away from the driver. So I think a move like that puts a lot of it back in the drivers' hands and hopefully we'll see a better Daytona and a better Talladega as the result.”