NASCAR announced Aug. 22 that it plans to have crash data recording devices installed in its cars by the start of the 2002 Winston Cup season.
John Andretti, driver of the No. 43 Dodges, knows from experience that a lot of work needs to be done before that program becomes reality.
Before Andretti came to NASCAR, he drove on the Championship Auto Racing Teams circuit and was part of the early stages of research into use of the devices, nicknamed "black boxes" for their similarity to the ones used on aircraft, in Indy-style cars.
"They asked us if we'd be sort of the guinea pigs," Andretti said. "The technology has advanced a lot in 10 years. Back then, it would record a specific incident in the car, and if you hit a curb hard enough it might record that instead of the actual accident. You'd have an accident following hitting the curb, and you had the data from hitting the curb."
Andretti also had one of the devices catch fire on him during a qualifying run. He said issues about how the electronic devices can withstand the shock and heat of being in a Winston Cup car's cockpit will be crucial to their development.
"What they want to do is get it into a development program and develop it so that when the day comes they start giving it to every team, it's pretty well bulletproof," Andretti said.
Andretti doesn't expect much fanfare when testing begins. NASCAR won't necessarily try to be overly secretive either, he said.
"In Indy cars, we just did it," Andretti said. "The sanctioning body knew about it and was supportive. We just went about our business. ... As this goes along, everybody will know about it. NASCAR knows when they're going to do it first, and the rest of us will find out."
Andretti said development and installation of the crash data recorders are the key elements in gaining a better understanding of what happens to stock cars and their drivers during crashes.
"We have nothing to go off of now except for Indy car crashes," Andretti said. "If you hit a wall on the right side, in an Indy car you're out of the race. There's your recording.
"In stock cars, you hear people say that somebody just brushed the wall. Believe me, inside the car you feel it. It's amazing. ... There's a lot going on when you just 'brush' the wall.
"When you see Indy cars explode when they hit the wall, we all know that's a good thing. From the grandstands, it's like, 'Oh, my God, that poor guy.' In NASCAR it looks like a guy can come in and change a right front tire and go back out."
Until there is a better understanding of what goes on, Andretti is confident that NASCAR won't go off chasing untested "solutions" for safety issues the sport continues to face.
"There are so many people who've jumped on this bandwagon," he said. "You're kind of testing in the dark until you start getting the data.
"You have people out there doing their own things and making claims that this is the answer to something, and they have limited information on it. It's important that everybody wants to get into it and help.
"The minute (Dale) Earnhardt's accident happened I must have had 10 or 15 different people tell me about different technologies of soft walls. But it's not as simple as saying we've got a soft wall and now we've fixed everything. I think it's great people are concerned and want to help, but it's also important we go through a process so, as my dad says, we don't trade a headache for an upset stomach.
"I like things to be proved to me. I don't like some guy to come in and just say, 'Oh, this is better.' 'Better' doesn't tell me anything. ... A manufacturer who wouldn't want to have a test happen or would question a test are the ones you probably want to avoid. It's like ... the guy who yells loudest in an argument is usually wrong."
When the data are available, Andretti says, NASCAR needs to make sure it is properly analyzed and then shared with all its teams.