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First Place

Matt Crossman, Sporting News


Kyle Petty’s car was a twisted mess of metal, the result of a smack in the back from one car, then a scary crunch into another. There’s always that second or two of trepidation after a hard hit, but everybody was OK. Suddenly the No. 45 was swarmed by firesuits. Guys from the wrecker trying to clear the track. Crew members already looking to get repairs under way, the two groups sometimes getting in each other’s way. Reporters looking for comments. Photographers snapping picture after picture. NASCAR officials eyeing the damage with millions of TV viewers peering over their shoulders.

NASCAR fans are the ultimate gawkers. And TV plays the ultimate enabler. But when the camera turns back to the race and the car heads for that great sponsored junkyard in the sky, that’s when NASCAR’s version of CSI (crash safety inspectors) jumps in.

CSI: NASCAR is a three-person team that inspects cars before each race and after each wreck. Their findings have led to numerous safety improvements in the three-plus years of the current program.

At the Nextel Cup level, field investigators Jamie DiPietro and Steve Lawson work every race, assisted by a third person who rotates in depending on the track.

For whatever reason – more aggressive driving, less experienced drivers, more pressure, a new spoiler and tires package – the CSI team has seemed much busier this season than in recent ones. With the race for the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup in full swing – and, with it, drivers fighting for position and taking chances they otherwise wouldn’t – DiPietro and Lawson don’t figure to get any downtime the rest of the season. Their job is mostly data collection, but what a fascinating data collection. Unless you’re Kyle Petty.

Measuring up

DiPietro and Lawson inspect every car that hopes to enter the race. The official inspection report lists 30 safety items that must be checked off, from the seemingly innocuous (the window net’s hole size) to the vital (the helmet, fire extinguishers and safety belts).

DiPietro and Lawson also take 10 measurements, such as the distance from the steering wheel to the seat and the distance from one head support to the other.

After a crash, DiPietro and Lawson take those measurements again, and changes help them to identify potential injuries. For example, if a head support is moved, DiPietro and Lawson tell the infield care center to pay special attention to the driver’s neck and shoulder areas. That works in reverse, too. If a driver tells the doctor that his shoulder hurts, the doctor tells DiPietro and Lawson to look for a cause.

All in a day’s work

The CSI team watches each race from inside a Nextel Cup hauler. Early in the Batman Begins 400 at Michigan, Brian Vickers slid sideways toward water barrels that lined the entry to pit road. “Don’t hit, don’t hit,” DiPietro said to the TV.

He hit.

Within minutes, DiPietro and Lawson were at Vickers’ garage. The damage was minor, limited to demolished sheet metal in the front end and a broken radiator. DiPietro and Lawson had little to do. “In these cases, we try to stay out of the team’s way because they’re trying to get back in the race,” DiPietro says. “That was kind of a false alarm.”

Most weekends aren’t as easy as Michigan, which typically features no major problems. How busy they are depends on the track. At Bristol, they don’t sit much. Two weeks ago at Daytona, there were five crashes involving 20 cars. But the first one didn’t happen until just before midnight, and the last one didn’t come until 1:45 a.m. ET Sunday. 

Looks good on a resume

There are unique jobs, then there is this one. Each of NASCAR’s divisions, from the lowest to the highest, has CSI members traveling to each race. So how does one become a crash safety investigator for NASCAR? Based on the crew doing the job now, the answer is: not by design.

At Michigan, none of the three CSI team members started out seeking a career in racing. DiPietro has an engineering degree but didn’t get it with plans to work for a race team, which she did for several years before joining the NASCAR safety team.

Lawson has a ton of experience in the auto parts industry, and he got his first job in NASCAR – it was in the Busch Series – through a friend.

Scott Wilson, whose primary job is crash safety investigation in the Craftsman Truck Series, is the third member of the team at Michigan. He has a degree in sports administration and got a job with NASCAR after an internship with the company that provides wrecker services to NASCAR.

Crash course

DiPietro and Lawson help train local rescue personnel. For example, NASCAR allows drivers to use any of three latches on the restraint devices, and it’s important for a rescue person arriving on the scene to quickly identify which latch is being used and unlatch it.

Also, firefighters stand by in the garage area in case of a fire. As Lawson learned at a recent race, not all of them know which end of the car to keep an eye on. Thankfully, the firefighter found out the easy way.

Making cars safer

NASCAR has had safety inspectors in various forms for years. The Nextel Cup team DiPietro and Lawson work on started in 2002 in the aftermath of Dale Earnhardt’s death, as the sport’s safety came under great scrutiny. At the same time, NASCAR’s research and development facility opened. The CSI team – also known as field investigators – and the R&D team work closely together.

“The coolest thing is when you find something, and you track it, something that will make the cars safer, and it ends up becoming a rule,” DiPietro says.

DiPietro and Lawson point to seat mounts as one of their most important discoveries. It used to be conventional wisdom in racing safety circles that a racecar’s seat should move on impact to protect the driver from injury. But NASCAR’s research, thanks in part to DiPietro and Lawson, found otherwise.

Subsequent rule changes demanded stronger and tougher seat mounts to prevent the seats from moving. Since the new rules were put into place, the injuries believed to have been caused by moving seats have disappeared.

The biggest change entering this season was NASCAR’s mandate that drivers use head and neck restraint devices, which the CSI team also was involved in.

Another example of CSI’s impact stems from a race a few years ago at Michigan International Speedway, when Brett Bodine was in a vicious wreck. Bodine’s helmet hit the steering wheel – and bent it. Or, more precisely, the steering wheel shot up and hit his helmet. The CSI investigation found only one universal joint in the steering column. A rule now requires two, and that problem has not recurred, either.

How’d that get there?

Lawson and DiPietro don’t get the same reaction from teams as other inspectors do. It’s accepted that teams will try to pull a fast one on the technical inspectors.
But Lawson says teams are much more willing to make changes the safety inspectors ask for.

Doug Richert, crew chief for Greg Biffle, says the safety inspectors constantly share information with teams. “When they see something better, they pass it along to us,” he says.

The field investigators’ reputation in the garage is good because it is well-known they do their homework. The changes they suggest are made only after a thorough examination of evidence. Says driver Jimmie Johnson: “In racing, there were a lot of crazy ideas dreamed up through the years – ‘I’ve been in so many crashes, and this helped and that helped,’ but there wasn’t any scientific data to back it up. Now, everything has been proven out.”

We’ll talk later 

DiPietro and Lawson don’t investigate the causes of crashes. Lucky for them. Drivers aren’t often in the mood for rational talk immediately after a crash, though they might have ideas about whose fault the crash was. “Believe me, they’ll tell you when you get to the car,” DiPietro says. Maybe even in colorful language.

They’re not just for airplanes anymore

One of the last things CSI does after a race is collect the black box from every team. Yes, NASCAR cars, like planes, have data recorders. If a car leaves the race early, Lawson or DiPietro runs to grab the box from the car. Otherwise, a team member delivers it as soon as the race is over. The most vital piece of information the black boxes record is the G-force of a hit when a car is in a bad wreck. “Small“ wrecks don’t even register on the black box

Inside one wreck

When DiPietro reached Petty’s No. 45 car after the wreck at Pocono, Lawson wasn’t with her. He was at the No. 11 car, which was involved in the same wreck. When more than one car needs to be inspected, the two split up. In this case, they found similar results. By e-mail, DiPietro described the process of investigating this crash.
TSN: In these pictures, what are you looking at/for?
JD: In the photo of me at the left rear of the car, I am trying to determine if there is any frame damage, but this is difficult to tell with the tire and wheel still on the car. The photo of me at the right rear of the car is me photographing where the rollcage of the car actually broke loose from the frame.
TSN: Did you learn anything from that wreck?
JD: We have been paying special attention to rear end impacts. In the past couple of years, we have had several “spectacular“ fires when the rear ends have been involved in impacts. We have made a couple of rule changes in the fuel cell area and have been closely following these changes and comparing any new rear end crashes to past incidents with similar crash characteristics that ended up with fuel fires. This allows us to determine whether the rule changes we made have accomplished what they set out to do.
TSN: Was there anything unique or unusual about what you saw at the car?
JD: The only unusual thing that I can think of is that the No. 11 car that Steve was looking at had almost identical damage. That is strange – usually if two cars come in, one will have front end damage and one will have rear. It was strange to compare his pictures and data recorder graphs to mine and see that the damage and traces were almost identical. Can’t remember that ever happening before.
TSN: When you get to a wreck like that, what’s the first thing you look for?
JD: First thing we do is help the wrecker crews get the cars unloaded. The teams are so anxious to get to work on the vehicles that they like to crawl all over them while they are still hooked up, which can be pretty unsafe. We try to help the wrecker crew find the correct garage, try to keep the team away so the wrecker crew can get the car unloaded and be back on their way to the track as quickly as possible. Then we let the teams go to work.
TSN: Do you have an order, formal or informal, of things you look for?
JD: I always do a walk-around so that I have a feel for the damage on the car. I generally start at the right front and do a complete circle. This will tell me where I need to focus my attention. For example, I probably don’t need to look under a car at trailing arms, rear suspension areas or fuel cell if there is only sheet metal damage to the rear area of the car.