Saturday, Apr 21, 2018
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Shut up and drive: words to live with

Its sport has never been more popular, and the victory by Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Michigan International Speedway sure didn't hurt that. But these are nonetheless hard times for NASCAR.

There is an ugly lawsuit afoot from a former employee who is black and female and, allegedly, was subject to reprehensible sexual and racial harassment. A couple of NASCAR officials have been suspended. The rest will play out in the courts and it could be a very, very big hit in terms of dollars and image.

Then there's the economy and $4-a-gallon gas. That's no problem for NASCAR's teams. The Sunoco pumps back in the garage area are free of charge. But it's a problem for the fans and there were thousands and thousands of empty seats Sunday for the LifeLock 400 Sprint Cup Series race at MIS.

Then there's all that whining from the troops about the so-called Car of Tomorrow, which is now the Car of Today. Mike Helton, the president of NASCAR, met with the drivers last Friday. In poker, they say "shuffle up and deal." Helton looked the good old boys in the eye and said, "Shut up and drive."

Some racers have referred to the new car as a piece of junk. Many claim the higher center of gravity makes the car handle like a dump truck. Others suggest it has produced some boring races because, in changing a lot of the design and engineering for standard safety and cost-cutting measures, a certain amount of parity seems to have settled in that makes it tough for cars back in the pack to rally against the upfront racers breathing clean air.

Last Sunday, six hours before the gentlemen started their engines at MIS, Brett Bodine told me that "everybody is better off because of the new car." He said that while pushing the pace car up to about 130 mph on the front straightaway, up on the high bank, maybe one-half inch from the wall. From the passenger's seat, it only seemed closer.

During one of our several laps around the two-mile oval, Bodine touched the brakes and pointed at a skid mark that disappears into the wall at Turn 2.

"That's me," he said.

Five years ago, almost to the day, Bodine was in a practice run at MIS when a car ahead of his snapped a flywheel which caused the back end of the engine to spill onto the track. Bodine hit the debris, blew his right-front tire and went into the wall, a collision that knocked him unconscious.

The force of the impact slammed his right foot onto the gas pedal and that's where it stayed. Bodine's car rode the wall for nearly one-eighth of a mile, and then the wheel spun left and the car headed straight across the track, picking up speed coming down the incline before crashing head first into the old tire wall in the infield at 120 mph.

Bodine knows every detail because he has video of the crash on his laptop computer. We watched it after our pace-car ride and when his car came down off the wall and headed for the infield it looks like someone on a suicide run.

We won't bore you with the litany of injuries he suffered or how long the recovery took. But he never raced again. It was the 12th time he can document being knocked out and in weighing risk and reward, it stopped being worth the risk. So, now, he's in charge of risk.

Bodine is NASCAR's director of cost research and he did all the on-track testing of the new car.

"I was so proud of the company for taking this project on," said Bodine, who has an engineering degree. "We went through four prototypes until we got it right. We had to have a new platform [chassis] and build it higher to have room in the cockpit for more driver safety. We had to have room to install carbon-fiber seats, which is the safest structure in racing. We addressed competitive issues and cost issues to help the teams and the owners.

"NASCAR designed it, developed it, built it, tested it, put it in the hands of the teams and rolled it out a year ahead of schedule. Trust me, this was done right.

"I was in an ugly crash and I survived it, so how can I not believe in the car and the equipment. There was a lot of safety stuff that did its job and I was really lucky. And today's car, this equipment, the built-in safety factors, is better than anything before it."

So, someday, some NASCAR racer is going to climb out of a car after a wreck every bit as horrendous as the one Bodine barely survived, walk back to the garage, and go back to work.

Maybe then he'll appreciate the new car. Until then, shut up and drive.

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