For safety's sake, some drivers prefer the track

By Jeff Gluck, Rocky Mount Telegram

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The drive down to Daytona just about killed me.

Cruising toward Florida on Interstate-95, a construction zone sprung up suddenly somewhere in South Carolina or Georgia. It was accompanied by a left-lane closure and merge sign, which the car in the right lane failed to see.

As I put on my turn signal and drifted into the right lane, the other car tried to pass a truck, squeezing me out of the rapidly ending stretch of pavement.

I honked once, accelerated onto the shoulder and made the pass - just missing the first orange construction barrel.

The surge of adrenaline was exactly the kind of thrill NASCAR fans get when they act like their favorite drivers on the highway. But race car drivers say the comparisons between racing and interstate driving are few.

"Both are tough for different reasons," NASCAR driver Eric McClure said. "On the track, you have a lot of people who want to be Richard Petty. On the highway, you have a lot of people who think they already are Richard Petty."

McClure is one of the drivers who employs the Williams Company, a public relations firm featuring media ace Chip Williams.

Williams asked several of his clients to address the traffic vs. racing question after two Mexican drivers missed a Mexico City news conference leading up to last Saturday's Busch Series race in that country. The reason? They were caught in traffic.

It's something fans often wonder about - how do NASCAR drivers fare off the track? Do they speed? Do they get in accidents?

The ultimate irony, obviously, would be the race car driver who gets injured or killed in a street vehicle.

There's a reason that rarely happens - race car drivers are experts at avoiding wrecks.

"Nobody is perfect, but you see a whole lot fewer mistakes on the race track than you do the interstate," said Chris Festa, who drives in the Infiniti Pro Series. "If somebody does make a mistake on the race track, the other drivers are usually pretty good at avoiding it - keeping that one mistake from being a much bigger mess.

It seems hard to believe, but Festa said he feels safer from accidents on a race track than a highway like I-95.

"I'd say there are a lot more chances to have a wreck if you are driving down a public road than on the race track," he said. "On the race track, though, the consequences of mistakes are a whole lot more severe."

Auto accident fatalities have held relatively steady over the past 10 years. According to the National Highways Traffic Safety Administration, 36,254 people were killed in vehicle crashes in 1994. Only a small increase to 38,252 fatalities were reported in 2003, the most recent data.

Meanwhile, race track safety has continued to improve dramatically, especially in NASCAR. The addition of the SAFER barriers or "soft walls" at every track has prevented countless injuries or deaths.

Last year, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta attended a NASCAR Nextel Cup race at Richmond, examining the SAFER barriers and suggesting they could someday be used on highways.

"The main difference I have seen is the 'awareness factor,'" Infiniti Pro Series driver Travis Gregg said. "Race car drivers know who is around them and can usually tell you who else is near, whether they can see them or not. Too many people driving passenger cars are under the constant assumption they are the only car on the road."

Of course, as Busch Series driver Stanton Barrett pointed out, the biggest difference is the amount of people watching.

"You mess up on the highway, and there are three witnesses and a state trooper to figure it all out, and your insurance company to answer to," he said. "Make a mistake on the race track, and 100,000 people in the grandstands and a million or so more watching on television will tell you how you could have avoided the whole thing."