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NASCAR hiring GM's Tom Gideon as new safety boss...and ex-racer Randy LaJoie says there are still major safety issues to address


Tom Gideon, a NASCAR legend in safety work, for more than 15 years (Photo: GM Racing)


   By Mike Mulhern

   NASCAR has just signed Tom Gideon, the well-respected General Motors safety executive, to head the sport's safety program, according racing safety guru Randy LaJoie.
    And Gideon will have a lot on his plate immediately.
   First, an initial look at a savage ARCA crash last Friday showed seat belts that didn't work as well as they should have, according to ex-driver LaJoie, who says one driver nearly went through the windshield upon impact because his belts were too slack. There was no immediate word from ARCA officials on that issue.
   "He was very lucky," LaJoie said. "This is 2009, and we don't need to have potentially very bad incidents like that."
   Second, NASCAR's in-the-works project for soft-walls at short tracks around the country.
   So safety was a hot-button issue here Wednesday at Daytona International Speedway. And NASCAR held one of its frequent safety meetings with drivers and crew chiefs, noting one of the key advances will be, for next season, SFI certification of racing seats.
   LaJoie, the two-time NASCAR Busch (now Nationwide) series champion who has made a new career in race-car safety, says the death last year of NASCAR safety director Steve Peterson brought a halt to that very promising safety program – soft walls for NASCAR's weekly short tracks. "Why shouldn't my kid be just as safe at the weekly short track as these Cup guys are out here," LaJoie said.
   LaJoie is a very outspoken proponent of numerous safety initiatives.
   "Steve was working on a soft-walls program that was similar to what we have at all the big NASCAR Cup tracks, only it would cost half as much, because you're not running 190 mph on the short tracks," LaJoie said.
   "But when I asked about the status of that program, I was told to check with Nebraska (the University of Nebraska has helped in development of NASCAR's soft walls and other programs, under Dr. Dean Sicking). And when I called Nebraska, they said they hadn't heard anything more since Steve's death.
   "Once Steve passed, nobody's picked up the ball and carried it.
   "I'm glad NASCAR has just signed Tom.
   "Steve had a persona about him that he was going to do whatever was right…and he didn't have to answer to anybody. He was just going to do what was right.
   "Steve wasn't job-scared; he wasn't worried about sitting in a meeting with the bosses….because what he was doing was what he believed was right.
   "And there's been nobody in that position as brave and forceful as Steve.
   "But Tom Gideon coming in here, he's got the same respect…and the same attitude."

Steve Peterson, for years NASCAR's top cop on safety (Photo: NASCAR)

LaJoie's main business now is building racing seats www.thejoieofseating.com and promoting safer seats and safer in-car racing features. He's also launching a new non-profit business under the logo Safer Racer, to provide safety advice for racers.
   Remember Michael McDowell's horrendous crash at Texas? He was running in a LaJoie seat.
   "And that was an old Dale Jarrett seat from 2001," LaJoie said.
   An aluminum seat…in an era where carbon fiber seats are the rage?
   "They tell me Rick Hendrick has invested $10 million to $15 million to develop this carbon fiber seat that's out there (Tony Stewart is the newest convert)," LaJoie said.
   "But if someone wants an aluminum seat, the others aren't strong enough.
   "We had a big test last November of racing seats at Delphi (the GM-affiliated safety testing division, in Ohio) ….and I was a little nervous, because the others making aluminum seats with a lot of stuff. And I was thinking 'Uh-oh.'
   "But my stuff tested better.
   "Hey, it's not easy making an aluminum seat. But my $3500 aluminum seat can compete with those $10,000 carbon fiber seats.
   "After watching crash-tests of various racing seats, on my way home I called Kevin Harvick immediately and told him to change out his seats, because from what I saw, if he kept running the seat he was running, he was going to get hurt," LaJoie said. "I've been trying to get Kevin in a safer seat for years.
   "And I was down at the dirt tracks watching these Cup guys 'play,' and told them they needed to step up and take a stand on making all those dirt-track cars safer.
   "I looked at maybe 190 cars….and only 10 of them were safe.

Randy LaJoie, two-time NASCAR champion, keeps pushing safety (Photo: Randy LaJoie)

   "So I've told those NASCAR guys that run over there (like Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman) that they needed to make a stand on safety – some of those dirt cars have roll-cages that are simply too small…and dangerous. Some of those guys have a hard time just getting out of those cars after a crash, and most have only one way to get out….and that's why NASCAR came up with the roof hatch.
   "I asked Kenny Wallace if he had two ways to get out of his car, and he looked at it and said no. So he's going to fix it.
   "If you have only one way to get out, and that way is blocked, and you're on fire….that's not going to be good.
   "NASCAR drivers can make a big statement on safety over there if they want to."
   Safer NASCAR seats is a long-running project, going back to Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s death here in 2001.
  "But I've been asking for 10 years now: 'Can somebody tell me why, if we have 'ratings' for helmets, seat belts, fire suits and underwear, everything we put on our bodies and everything that restrains us….but we can sit in a tin cup?' " LaJoie said. "That's wrong."

Tom Gideon (Photo: GM Racing)

  Gideon will work out of the NASCAR Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C., near Charlotte.
  Gideon comes to NASCAR from General Motors, where he had worked since 1970, most recently as the safety manager for GM Racing from 1997-2008. During that latter period, he managed all aspects of GM driver safety activities for NASCAR, the IndyCar Series, the National Hot Rod Association, the American LeMans Series, the American Speed Association and the United States Auto Club.
  While at GM, Gideon developed safety prototype race cars for NASCAR, the NHRA and ASA. In addition, he was involved in validation of restraint systems and data recorders and presented periodic safety lectures to representatives of all sanctioning bodies.
  A member of the Society of Automotive Engineers, Gideon serves on the Formula SAE Rules Committee and the SAE Green Racing Challenge Committee.
  Gideon is a graduate of Ohio State University, with a degree in mechanical engineering.


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