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NASCAR works on braking point

Drivers and teams encouraged by new devices being developed to solve potentially deadly problem of stuck accelerators.

In less time than it will take to read this sentence, Bobby Labonte went from being the best in his sport to preparing for the worst.

During a morning practice session Sept. 1, the Winston Cup points leader drove into the third turn at Darlington Raceway, let off the gas and nothing happened.

Labonte frantically stomped on the brake pedal in an attempt to slow the car.

Again, nothing.

Moments later, his No. 18 Pontiac broadsided the foot-thick concrete wall at more than 160 mph.

"It could have been a lot worse," said Labonte, who walked away unhurt.

"It was a hard enough hit for me to be hurt. But the positive part was that I'm physically fit enough or it wasn't enough of an angle, or speed, or it was glancing enough that it didn't have any bad effects."

Labonte's wreck returned attention to the problem of stuck accelerators, which are suspected to have caused the fatal crashes involving Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty this year at New Hampshire International Speedway.

"It surprises me that it's as much of a problem as it is," said Scott Pruett, a Winston Cup rookie and former Championship Auto Racing Teams driver. "I guess at the same time it doesn't much matter what I think. It's a reality. It's reality there's been a couple of deaths because of it."

Debris from the track and broken parts can cause a stuck accelerator, but the most common cause is a rod that connects the gas pedal to the air cleaner.

Sometimes the rod sticks and the car continues accelerating even if a driver has lifted off the gas.

The problem is compounded at flat racetracks where there is little banking and the driving line is far from the wall.

"I think all of us of us have had it happen at least one time in our career," three-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon said. "I know I have. I had it happen at Martinsville in a Busch car one time. It absolutely destroyed the car."

NASCAR mandated two engine cutoff switches be installed before the Brickyard 400 on Aug. 5. Labonte didn't have time to activate either during his crash.

Some believe there may be a better answer.

Before Labonte's wreck, only one driver had talked to Jeff Burton about a new safety device he had tested a week earlier.

The device consists of two sensors in the intake manifold and brake system.

If a driver slams on his brakes and the engine is at or near full acceleration, the ignition automatically shuts off. The engine then loses power, allowing the driver to regain control and possibly avoid impact.

"It works really well," Burton said. "It takes the need for the driver to find the kill switch out of the equation. He just reacts as he normally would to the throttle hanging by applying a great deal of brake pressure. Ricky Rudd and I tested it and we weren't able to find any flaws in it by trying to make it activate when it shouldn't and it always came on when it should've."

Jack Roush, who owns five Winston Cup cars including Burton's, is spearheading development of the system, which is similar to one former CART chief steward Wally Dallenbach created five years ago.

Roush said that as many as six will be available for use in the Chevrolet Monte Carlo 400 tonight at Richmond International Raceway. By next weekend, a dozen devices may be ready for use. "Once we've put them in enough cars to get driver feedback," he said, "we think that they will see all positives and no negatives."

NASCAR, which has kept an eye on the system's development, isn't requiring the device but will allow voluntary use.

"It is something that's being researched right now," NASCAR chief operating officer Mike Helton said. "It's an ongoing conversation. We may see some of them voluntarily used in some of the races soon. It's a direction we are going and we'll continue to go in.

"We wouldn't stop someone from putting it in cars right now. What you have, though, is a new element that has to be thought through. And a competitor generally doesn't want to put something brand new in a race car in a points battle."

The Roush device will cost teams from $480 to $550.

In contrast, one Goodyear racing tire costs $300.

"Cost is really a not a factor when you're trying to save somebody's life," said Tommy Baldwin, crew chief for Ward Burton.

Drivers and teams seem encouraged by the new devices being developed, but hope that doesn't lead to complacency.

"Obviously there are things that have been done, everyone is paying more attention to it, and obviously it also still happens so we still have a ways to go to making things totally better," defending Winston Cup champion Dale Jarrett said. "So, as long as we're moving forward and in a positive direction, that's all that we're asking. We realize that things can't happen overnight and whenever something is done, it has to be something that is the right thing and sometimes that takes a little bit of time to research. You can't just snap your fingers and make these hung throttles go away."