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Drivers don't just listen to John Melvin, they put their lives in his hands

1/16/2008 - NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- John Melvin is a quiet, unassuming man, not one to stand out in a crowd.

He speaks softly, but his words are powerful, a little like a humble, but brilliant college professor who actually makes his students believe they can change the world.

Melvin has helped change NASCAR's world for the better. When he talks, drivers listen. Not an easy thing to do, but every sentence matters to them.

Why is that? Because they understand Melvin has worked tirelessly for many years to keep them alive and well.

Melvin's official title is Technical Consultant to NASCAR for Racecar Safety. He retired from General Motors in 1998 after 40 years as a biomedical scientist for automobile safety.

Since 1992, he has worked exclusively on racing safety. No one knows that discipline better, and no one has done more to bring about the revolutionary advances we've seen over the past seven years.

Those changes started after Dale Earnhardt's death in the 2001 Daytona 500. Since then, improvements have come in head-and-neck restraints, seat padding and construction, seat-belt design and the SAFER barrier, along with the Car of Tomorrow.

If all those things were in place today, would Earnhardt have survived his last-lap crash at Daytona?

"Oh yeah. There's no doubt," Melvin said. "We know the severity of that crash was not all that great compared to some others we've seen. We'll never know for sure that exact amount of the impact because we didn't have crash recorders in the cars then, but some crashes since then have been much more severe with a good outcome."

Since Earnhardt's death, no driver has lost his life in a NASCAR event. Serious injury is almost nonexistent.

Melvin listed Mark Martin's 2006 crash at Lowe's Motor Speedway as a specific incident where the outcome might have been tragic a few years earlier.

"That would have been fatal, I think, in the old days," Melvin said. "It was very similar to Earnhardt's crash in many ways.

"Martin turned violently into the wall. He realized afterward that all these things worked for him. It's so gratifying to see him still racing because of it. Even if it hadn't been fatal, he could have been badly injured and probably would have retired."

But there is a downside to all the safety improvements. Some drivers entering NASCAR today seem unaware of the danger of serious injury.

"I've heard that young drivers think they're bulletproof," Melvin said. "We need to tone them down with a good talking-to. Racing is still very dangerous. When you're going 200 mph down a track, things can happen. You have to be prepared for it."

Melvin said there's also a scientific reason for bravado in younger racers.

"We've seen it in recent studies on the development of the brain," Melvin said. "They show the region of the brain that assesses risk isn't fully developed until you're about 22.

"That's why teenagers often get into trouble in cars. In a racing situation, younger drivers don't perceive risk the same way an experienced driver does, so they are more apt to do things that put them in harm's way."

Lucky for them that Melvin and others have made their profession much safer than it was a decade ago. Those things make Melvin a happy man. He knows how far safety has come.

"But I don't know if you can quantify it," Melvin said. "The main step forward is what we did in packaging the driver, the seats and the head-and-neck restraints. Those are the major things that control injury to the driver.

"Without them, even the SAFER barrier would not be as effective. Without the cockpit restraints, drivers still would be dying hitting the barrier. It's still possible to have an impact with enough g-force to cause the basal skull fractures that were killing drivers."

But Melvin is a huge proponent of the SAFER barrier, the collapsible wall that greatly reduces the g-forces on impact. Most tracks do not have the barrier in place on the straightaways, which Melvin said needs to change.

"Everybody is pushing for that," he said. "It's a big cost, but the barrier has proven to be so effective. And it's very clear that you can hit a wall anywhere. Cars get turned on the straightaway, too. It's expensive for the bigger tracks, but it's a good thing to do."

Melvin was at Daytona this week for his annual meetings with the drivers, updating them on all the safety issues. The key point to this session was to clarify some issues over new helmets.

"We told them we would rather see them spend $10,000 on a seat than a fancy helmet,'' Melvin said. "The seat is your real protection, particularly on side impacts. So you want to put your money in the best seat you can afford."

We told them we would rather see them spend $10,000 on a seat than a fancy helmet. The seat is your real protection, particularly on side impacts. So you want to put your money in the best seat you can afford.

-- John Melvin

Melvin also has other messages to convey. First is the Car of Tomorrow, which is the only car in Sprint Cup now. He applauds the safety improvements in the car -- a larger crush panel in the front, stronger side design, bigger cockpit with the driver's seat moved to the right, etc.

The car is supposed to control cost and improve competition, two things still up for debate. But the No. 1 goal of increasing safety is a clear winner.

"These cars are much better in side impact," Melvin said. "The T-bone crash is our biggest concern in all of racing. When a car knifes into another car on the driver's side, that's still a very scary kind of crash.

"The foam in the side now, along with the increased strength in the structure, helps tremendously. And changing the front end of the car spreads the load when it strikes another car on the side. Before, you just had an engine coming at you."

The new car is the safest ever built in the sport. And the advancements since Earnhardt's death have taken NASCAR out of the dark ages and into its own safety renaissance. But Melvin knows it's impossible to make car racing completely safe.

"We've tried to get rid of the preventable injuries," he said. "But there are still situations we can't prevent. If a car goes upside down and hits the wall and shears the roof off, well, I don't know how to design against that. It's the kind of thing that can still occur. These cars can still launch in a bad situation."

Maybe the day will come when Melvin figures out a solution to that, also.

He won't stop working on it. That's his life's work, and NASCAR is a far better place because of it.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.