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NASCAR gets to stay behind the wheel

Death is supposed to be the great equalizer, but even in death some people are more equal than others.

So the story of Dale Earnhardt's autopsy pictures has blossomed into a Pressing Public Problem, worthy of redress by the Florida Legislature.

A bill is moving almost as fast as a car around the Daytona 500 track to bar release of autopsy pictures without a judge's approval.

The bill was introduced even though the Orlando Sentinel said from the get-go that it never intended to publish the Earnhardt photos.

The newspaper only wanted to see the pictures as it continues to ask the questions NASCAR squirms at asking, about safety and professional auto racing.

Doing so was carrying out the newspaper's absolute responsibility, to serve as a check on the most powerful institutions in its back yard. Daytona is very much in its back yard. The France family of Daytona Beach, which owns NASCAR, is one very big wheel in the Orlando area.

A month before Earnhardt was killed during the Daytona 500, the Sentinel published a three-part series called "Racing Safety: Drivers at Risk." It concluded that NASCAR was the least safety-conscious of all auto racing organizations _ and the most secretive, when it came to discussing safety measures under consideration. That didn't stop NASCAR from changing its rules to make racing faster, and more exciting to fans, but more dangerous to drivers, so much so that some drivers complained.

According to the Sentinel, NASCAR has been resistant to use of the HANS (head and neck support) device that some think might have saved Earnhardt's life. The devices are required on all drivers for CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams), another racing organization.

NASCAR is also the only racing organization without its own staff of doctors and other emergency medical personnel at tracks to care for injured drivers. They rely on local help.

Teresa Earnhardt's suit against the Sentinel, to keep her husband's autopsy pictures secret, is about over. A court-appointed mediator is going to select an expert who will examine the photographs and then the Sentinel will be allowed to ask three questions of him. Then the pictures will be sealed by a judge.

The notion of limiting the Sentinel's access to inspect the pictures and denying it the chance to have its own experts conduct an inquiry insults the reporters who are barking at NASCAR's door about its safety practices and its profit motives.

It also hurts the public, at least that part of it that is not bloodthirsty and craving sensationalism _ the very thing of which the Sentinel has been accused.

It's been argued that NASCAR is a private business and has the right to conduct its sport the way it wants.

Whoever thinks this forgets that other sports, run just as privately, have taken steps to protect their players.

Ice hockey players wear helmets. The goalies wear face masks.

Baseball players wear batting helmets. Catchers are covered in protective gear virtually from head to foot.

And does anybody remember when football helmets and padding were made merely of leather?

The Earnhardt fans will be calling and writing this morning. The kindest of them will tell me to go back to writing about motherhood.

Let them.

Don't they want to know if some other driver's life might be saved by knowing how Earnhardt died?

Don't they want to know precisely what they're cheering for?

If NASCAR has contempt for the drivers' safety, then its part of the racing industry isn't a motor sport. It's a blood sport.