Desperately Seeking Dale, Part II

For the first time since 1977, a car carrying the name of DODGE went into the NASCAR winner's circle. In a rain shortened NASCAR Winston Cup circle about, STERLING MARLIN put the Ganassi team # 40 DODGE in front of the # 9 DODGE of BILL ELLIOTT [EVERINGHAM MOTORSPORTS] in the waning laps of the Michigan PEPSI 400, and never looked back. Imagine, DODGE racing against DODGE for a win. Shades of the late 1960s when the 426 Hemi head V-8 ruled the NASCAR circles.

This amidst the swirl of controversy that has surrounded NASCAR in this season with the untimely death of racing great DALE EARNHARDT. Never before has NASCAR been subjected to the outside pressures of the press, public interests, and the oversight of the courts. Even in the face of such huge pressures, NASCAR continues to stonewall, remaining the last great bastion of privately held interests with the resultant controversy that the whole picture is not being shown to the public, the teams, or the people that put their lives on the line every time a green flag waves, the drivers.

Never a friend to NASCAR, the ORLANDO SENTINEL published an article in its Sunday 8/19/01 issue that pointed a harpoon right at the NASCAR organization. The SENTINEL alleges that speed was put well ahead of driver safety in the design of the NASCAR racing machines.

The SENTINEL has been digging at NASCAR for years, with its fangs coming out with the death of popular driver NEIL BONNET in a race test at DAYTONA BEACH in 1996. NASCAR determined that a rear shock absorber hanger had broken, causing BONNET's car to slam into the wall. The SENTINEL posed all sorts of questions, particularly why such a simple thing as a bolt should have been engineered so weakly as to fail in the first place.

Characterizing the Winston Cup Race Cars as the biggest technological anachronism in motorsports, the SENTINEL pointed out that the standards for today's cars dates back to when Lyndon Johnson was President of the United States, seat belts were optional [!] safety equipment, and a cup of coffee cost 25¢. The called the cars "relics" of a bygone era where stripping away their sheet metal skins would leave an Erector Set vision of what they consider a race car. The roll cage is made with the same grade of steel tubing used in water pipes and anyone with a welder and a hack saw can build one, or so alledges the SENTINEL.

My own search for updated standards was inconclusive. Yet, when I go over materials that I have about the earlier NASCAR racing machines, I can find nothing that indicates in any way that the SENTINEL isn't right on the point. And that point is that NASCAR places speed as a premium over safety!

When Chrysler finally made up its corporate mind to do anything, it went after it hammer, tong, and nail. Just as in 1962 when the corporate mind focused on NASCAR racing, things began to happen. It ultimately lead to the 1964 426 Hemi head V-8 that set NASCAR on its ear. With that engine a young Grand National Driver [prior to Winston being a major player] named RICHARD PETTY, driving a Plymouth, won his first Grand National Title. Yet, NASCAR, which in this case was solely in the control of BILL FRANCE Sr., formulated rules that hurt Chrysler Corporation Cars, and looked the other way for other manufacturers.

The continued penalization for ChryCo resulted in a pull out of Chrysler Corporation from NASCAR racing that very next year in 1965. As a result, RICHARD PETTY could not defend his previous year's title. Chrysler, and in particular Plymouth, was a lot more popular then, garnering such support of CHRYSLER's NASCAR boycott [along with the set out of RICHARD PETTY ] that NASCAR itself was facing near financial ruin in 1965! People stayed away in droves! Imagine that. Oh yes, to the point that FRANCE had to relent and allow ChryCo racers back into the fold.

It was said FRANCE was absolutely raging furious that anyone would question his authority, and never forgave Chrysler for its orchestrated effort to just race what they had developed. If it had not been for the personal interests of the extremely popular RICHARD PETTY, who had contractual deals with Chrysler to race Plymouths, and later Dodge, as well as a personal friendship with LEE PETTY, FRANCE may well have tried to mandate ChryCo right out NASCAR. The resultant financial situation of ChryCo and FRANCE's refusal to allow later versions of ChryCo's cars to participate in NASCAR sanctioned races set a rift with Chrysler and NASCAR that continued for over 20 years!

That sort of unquestioned oversight in any public sport is a relic as well. Football, baseball, basketball, any sort of sport has its ruling body, subject to public interests under the law. NASCAR does not. Their decisions are final, even to the point of not allowing the Daytona Beach Police Department to do their lawfully mandated duty in the investigation of the death of DALE EARNHARDT! Clearly under Florida Law, any unattended death [ outside a direct doctor's care ] calls for police intervention. Yet the Daytona Police were given NASCAR's version of the accident. That, folks is pure political muscle, and of such things, George Orwell knew when he wrote his novel "1984", which coined the "big brother" term of rules.

Without some sort of public interest in oversight, NASCAR will continue to function as it has, leaving safety in the cloud of smokey speed, and drivers will continue to die needlessly.

Even today, some 6 months after the death of his racing father, DALE EARNHARDT JR. wore a HANS device for the first time in a race. And NASCAR still has not mandated that they be worn by all drivers. Would it have saved DALE EARNHARDT? Who can say? However, the HANS device has clearly demonstrated its worth in many other forms of racing, and they absolutely work. So, why not order their use by all drivers? Perhaps the report of NASCAR's investigation of the death of DALE EARNHARDT, due on August 21, 2001 will bring more light on this sort of speculation. Personally, I doubt it.

I say that because in its quest for "parity", NASCAR will mandate all sorts of rules for engines, transmissions, rear ends, and other mechanical bits to the point of asking why not just build a NASCAR racer and leave it at that? Well, NASCAR would, like other specialty racing enterprises such as Indy cars or the Formula One racers, save for the howl of protest that would come from the manufacturers.

Even with the use of names of cars built for every day transportation, such as the Intrepid, Taurus, and Monte Carlo, the NASCAR racers in no way resemble anything that JOE AVERAGE could ever hope to purchase in the showroom of his local BELCHFIRE dealer! However, they will not mandate a safety device that has been in use for over 20 (yes TWENTY years!!) that has been conclusively proven over and over to safe driver's lives. Why?

The SENTINEL also went on to explain in great detail about the lack of testing on the chassis of the current cars. Crash testing, that is. NASCAR prefers to let accidents of the proportion of the death of DALE EARNHARDT to become their laboratory. If not, then why haven't NASCAR officials conducted crash tests in the over 52 years of its racing existence? There have been many companies that have offered their services to NASCAR over the years in the search for safer cars. NASCAR has rebuffed each and every effort.

The FRANCE brothers, who currently maintain absolute control of the multi-billion dollar NASCAR empire have promised that the Tuesday report [ 8/21/01 ] will raise the curtain for the whole world to see the NASCAR conclusions. What, if any recommendations might be made as a result received a "no comment" to the SENTINEL reporters.

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