- Ed Hinton, NASCAR
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DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Do you realize how remarkable the past seven days have been? Especially Friday, when Eric McClure walked into a media conference here and talked quite coherently throughout?
Do you understand that the hit he took at Talladega Superspeedway last Saturday was "much more severe than the crashes that were killing those guys in 2000 and '01," according to the world's foremost authority on motor racing safety, John Melvin?
Only if you've been around as long as Melvin and I have, seen what we have seen, studied the tragedies Melvin has, written the obituaries I have, can you fathom it all.
NASCAR, which only 12 years ago was producing a mechanism of injury where G-forces tried to rip the head off the body, is now producing fewer concussions than the NFL or the NCAA or even girls' soccer.
"Those guys" Melvin mentioned were of course Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr., Tony Roper ... and Dale Earnhardt. And then Blaise Alexander of ARCA before NASCAR mandated head restraints for drivers in the fall of '01.
Melvin, a former professor of biomechanical engineering at the University of Michigan and longtime occupant-restraint scientist for General Motors, was brought in along with other top safety scientists to stop the nightmare in '01. There hasn't been a fatality at NASCAR's major levels since.
Long before all that, I saw death and worse. McClure, 34, has four little girls, the eldest age 5. I watched two other little girls grow up on welfare and develop into lovely, educated ladies while their father, Rick Baldwin, lay in a coma for 11 years.
I once wrote two obituaries in the same column: Tiny Lund in NASCAR and Mark Donohue in Formula One.
In this very media center at Darlington Raceway, I went through a far worse press conference than Friday's. In 1999, not 8 feet from where McClure sat, a tearful Ernie Irvan announced his retirement due to head injuries.
I've seen and heard many a driver just "not quite right" after bad injuries -- gazes gone adrift, sentences incoherent, words slurred. To this day, the great Bobby Allison has to stop at times and think of what he wants to say.
And now, to hear Eric McClure talking just fine, alertly, coherently -- that is a joy if you've had to study and write about too much death and worse.
"It's been remarkable," Melvin said in a telephone interview. "I couldn't have hoped for more success when we got into it [in 2000]."
McClure hit the wall at Talladega head on, without brakes, at perhaps 180 mph, in Saturday's Nationwide race. By comparison, Earnhardt's "velocity of approach," as engineers call it, to the wall in the 2001 Daytona 500 was estimated at only about 40 mph. His car drifted up into the wall rather than hitting at full speed, as McClure did.
NASCAR doesn't divulge the G-spike readings from crash recorders, but did tell McClure's team, and "It was a really high number," the driver said.
Listening to McClure on Friday, you would figure he had been rattled emotionally, but not physically.
"I remember bits and pieces of everything," he said. "It's very spotty at times after the impact. I just remember being very excited. We were in a good position and I felt like I had an opportunity for our first top-10. ... I saw the smoke ahead of me and went to hit the brake pedal and the brakes were not there."
He has no idea why -- the brakes had worked fine when he tested them on the green-white-checkered restart.
"I just remember getting hit by someone and going toward the wall. At that point, I just braced for impact and that's really all I remember until after the accident."
From the outbreak of death a dozen years ago, NASCAR racing has come to this milestone week: There have been urgent daily updates in the news since last Saturday, and there was a press conference Friday -- about a concussion.
Not that a concussion isn't serious. From the NFL to girls' soccer, the injury is a critical problem. But it's rare in NASCAR nowadays. And it's far from the daily updates and bleak press conferences we used to have in NASCAR, about death, about coma, about the ebb and flow of life in some intensive care unit for days or weeks or months.
Indeed, McClure's injury got so much attention because it is so aberrant in NASCAR now.
"You generally don't hear a lot of stories or reports of concussions in our sport," McClure said, "and I think that's a testament to NASCAR and what they've done."
"Drivers just don't seem to get them as much anymore," Melvin said.
Gone entirely from NASCAR is basilar skull fracture, an injury so deadly that Irvan is the only driver to have survived it, in 1994. It's what killed all the drivers in the recurring nightmare of 2000 and '01.
Is it what very likely would have killed Eric McClure last Saturday, without his HANS head restraint device?
"I believe so," Melvin said. "The head restraint did its job."
Chalk up yet another life saved, another family left intact, by two other biomechanical engineers, Dr. Robert Hubbard of Michigan State, who invented the HANS, and Dr. Hubert Gramling of Mercedes-Benz, who made it practical and comfortable for drivers to wear.
The SAFER barrier, or "soft wall," got immediate credit in sparing McClure worse injury, as it usually does in hard-impact wrecks. But that's largely because the SAFER is the most visible safety mechanism to TV cameras and announcers.
"It's a wonderful device," Melvin said. "But it's what we've done inside the cars, the seats and head restraints," that were McClure's primary line of survival.
"The SAFER lowers the energy [of impact] about 30 percent," Melvin said.
That's very important, but not as critical as the HANS or the seats stopping the violent head movement that killed Earnhardt and the others in the nightmare.
When you think about it, the dying stopped immediately after NASCAR mandated head restraints, and well before the SAFER barriers had been installed at the tracks.
There hasn't been a career-ending injury at the national-series level of NASCAR since Jerry Nadeau in 2003. At that time, seats hadn't been developed to the level they are now to eliminate side-to-side head movement.
McClure missed Friday night's Nationwide race at Darlington, and considers himself on a "week-to-week basis" for a return to driving, following NASCAR's medical evaluation process.
"I would love to get back in the car as soon as possible," he said.
All the safety innovations of the past dozen years, "I've seen, firsthand" now.
"I'm not scared, especially now. I think I've hit about as hard as you can hit."
And lived to tell about it, quite coherently.