The danger crashes in on the sly

Published June 20, 1997|Updated Oct. 1, 2005

Terror gripped Martha Nemechek's face. Her hands reached out, clutching for anyone with the power to stop her son's race car from spinning. As her eyes filled with fear and her mind with painful images, only one word made it past her lips:


The April weekend at Talladega Superspeedway marked the racing family matriarch's first visit to the track in a month. That Joe Nemechek, her oldest of three sons, had won the pole for the Busch Grand National race seemed only to confirm the time was right "to come back to our NASCAR family," she said.

Wearing a Nemechek T-shirt and her lucky sun visor _ the one with the numbers of Joe's No.87 Busch and No.42 Winston Cup cars stitched on by hand _ Martha took her place by the infield wall to watch her son race.

Ten laps in, a healing weekend took a frightening turn. A car bounced off the trioval wall and into the path of Joe's Chevrolet. Contact sent Joe spinning toward the inner retaining wall.

Unspectacular by auto racing standards, the incident in which Joe's Busch car spun harmlessly to a stop, shy of hitting the wall, hardly seemed cause for panic. Spinning never really looks that hazardous.

Unless you know the danger.

Unless you've lost one son.

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NASCAR's heroes often emerge without serious injury from the ugliest heaps of stock car carnage. Less than a year ago, Dale Earnhardt's car spun, flipped and tumbled through the air at Talladega, shedding pieces until it landed on its roof, only to be struck twice more by speeding cars.

Earnhardt walked away.

How strange, then, to see rescue crews cutting John Nemechek from his NASCAR Craftsman truck in March. No other trucks were involved in the spin that sent him sideways into the first-turn wall at Metro-Dade Homestead Motorsports Complex. His tires never left the track. It just didn't look that bad.

John Nemechek never regained consciousness.

If Earnhardt's survival was a miracle, the 27-year-old Nemechek's death from uncontrollable swelling of the brain five days after the March 16 race had to be a mistake. How could Earnhardt's vicious wreck prove virtually harmless, John Nemechek's seemingly benign one fatal?

It is auto racing's anomaly.

"As long as you see things keep moving and flipping and spinning and stuff flying off, that's good because the energy is being dissipated. When something hits and nothing moves, that's when it hurts," said Joe Nemechek, a fourth-year Winston Cup driver trying to come to terms with the loss of his younger brother to a sport that has been a family passion.

"If John's truck would have been turned five degrees either direction it probably wouldn't have hurt him. But his truck was at a point where it couldn't absorb the energy; his body had to absorb it."

Though details are sketchy, it is believed when the driver's side of John Nemechek's Chevy truck slammed flush into the wall, John's head struck a roll cage bar. Some theorize his head hit the wall. His helmet was split to the inner lining.

Not the type of crash that normally makes highlight reels, John Nemechek's accident was of the variety drivers fear most. A sideways impact virtually nullifies technological advances that during the past 10 years have made Winston Cup cars so safe. The driver is at his most vulnerable.

"When you hit side to side with the door bars square up against the wall or something like that, that's usually when your body has to give and not the car anymore," Winston Cup driver Jeff Gordon said. "I know when I'm watching a race and I see a guy go up and smack the wall and the car kind of stops, I go, "Man, that's the one that hurts.' "

Since NASCAR began racing in 1949, 26 Winston Cup drivers have been killed in crashes in testing, practice, qualifying and racing. It is a testament to NASCAR's safety innovations that only four deaths have come in the past 13 years _ all in accidents that began as indefensible sudden-impact collisions between car and wall.

Nemechek's death _ the first in the third-year truck series _ is the latest tragic example of racing's scariest form of collision. The laws of physics _ that energy, in this case kinetic energy, does not just disappear but must be transferred to some other form _ are a fearsome proposition when a car traveling nearly 200 mph strikes a non-absorbent concrete wall.

"Back in the old days we had what we called the Crush Factor," 25-year Winston Cup veteran Darrell Waltrip said. "What would happen to a car if it would hit the wall? How far would it crush before it got into where it would hurt anything? That was the driver's side and passenger side," he said, adding that 1{ of the Chevrolet Monte Carlos he currently drives would fit into the Mercury in which he made his debut.

"Today, on the driver's side, there is no factor. You are there. When you get slammed up into the wall on the driver's side, you have paid the price."

John Nemechek paid the ultimate price. But like most racing families, the Nemecheks have not turned on their sport. Joe played the videotape of John's accident over and over. He found neither answers nor fault.

"I've looked at everything and it was just a really bad wreck," Joe Nemechek said. "You still wonder, "Why?' But you won't ever know. The more you try to figure out why, the less you know. I guess the Lord has a plan for everything."

NASCAR, too, has reviewed the film of John Nemechek's accident. Studying wrecks is for NASCAR an inexact _ but efficient _ science, a key step in improving the safety features of its race cars.

NASCAR does not have a unit similar to the National Transportation Safety Board called in to investigate wreckage from airplane crashes. Rather, NASCAR cuts through the bureaucracy with an infield full of experts at its constant disposal.

"We're fortunate that inside this fence is about everybody we need to look at something, at whatever track we're at," said Gary Nelson, Winston Cup competition director. "The car builders are here, the manufacturers' reps, the crew chiefs, the eyewitnesses, the tape replays, the drivers. Everything is right here in this little piece of acreage at every track. We can move very quickly."

Thanks to the popularity boom of stock car racing in the past 10 years, almost every minute of track time is recorded by television crews. The footage provides NASCAR officials with videotape of nearly every incident.

Sometimes Nelson takes a street car with the same specs as a race car _ Monte Carlos, Thunderbirds and Grand Prixs aren't that hard to come by in track parking lots _ to create a slow-motion replay of an accident. Put into the skid marks, the car is moved 1 inch at a time to capture the entire crash in still photos.

What follows is best described as a brainstorming session with Nelson, his staff and some of the sharpest minds in racing _ the competitors.

"Racing brings out innovators and tacticians," Nelson said. "The good ones rise to the top and are in this garage. We're able to use their vast knowledge and experience."

The process has produced a number of safety innovations in recent years:

After seeing Richard Petty's arm come out the window during an accident at Darlington in the early 1970s, NASCAR introduced window nets, woven strips that keep the driver inside the car during racing.

Concerned too many cars were becoming airborne, NASCAR looked at airline industry methods and in 1994 introduced _ after a number of test failures _ roof flaps that pop up when a car turns backward to interrupt air flow, currents that might lift the car off the ground.

After Ricky Craven's car landed atop and caved in the roof of Ernie Irvan's car at Talladega in April 1996, NASCAR devised a bar that runs from the front of the roof down the front windshield and into the back of the dashboard. Because it was introduced not long after Earnhardt's notorious Talladega wreck that July, in which he landed on his roof, it is somewhat mistakenly called the Earnhardt Bar. But two drivers were testing the bar for NASCAR in that July race.

NASCAR is testing a secondary net for the driver's window _ called the Burton Net for driver Jeff Burton, who thought of the device _ that hindsight says might have lessened the severity of John Nemechek's injuries. The net stretches over the upper corner of the window inside the full window net.

Because it still is in development, NASCAR will not comment on the net Burton began using this season, but response from race teams has been favorable. By mid-April, Simpson Race Products produced 175 nets. All were quickly sold.

"Hopefully, we never have to try the net out," Burton crew chief Buddy Parrott said. "But we feel confident in the event of a wreck that it would keep his head safe."

NASCAR also declined to comment specifically on what it has learned from studying John Nemechek's truck accident, and whether any safety changes or devices will result.

"We're looking at a couple of things," Nelson said.

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The Nemecheks are back at the track each weekend, the only place they know _ or want _ to be. The slow healing continues. Despite the continued risk for Joe, and no matter how hard it sometimes is for Martha Nemechek to watch, the Nemecheks still are a racing family, finding comfort in their belief that John watches over them, is still with them.

"It's hard to believe he's gone," Joe Nemechek said. "The Lord works in mysterious ways, and we know he's in a better spot. We have to figure out how to get our lives back in order."

Pinned to her shirt each day, Martha Nemechek wears a button bearing a picture of John's smiling face. She ordered 500 more of the buttons to give to fans, friends, loved ones and strangers.

Last week there were cigars to pass around, too.

Joe Nemechek's wife, Andrea, delivered the couple's first child on June 11. He is named John Hunter Nemechek, after his late uncle. They will call him Hunter.

"The Lord takes a good one," Andrea said, "and he gives a good one back."