When NASCAR lost Dale Earnhardt in a tragic racing accident in 2001, the sanctioning body faced a firestorm of criticism. The previous year, NASCAR lost three top-level drivers-Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr., and Tony Roper-on the racetrack, and little changed in the off-season. Then one of the greatest heroes the sport has ever known was gone, and people-fans, media, and racers alike-weren't searching for a villain, but they wanted to know if everything had been done to prevent another tragedy.

Frustrations mounted afterwards when no great changes came down the pipe from NASCAR. Instead, officials said they believed their cars were among the safest in motorsports, and they intended to make any future changes based on solid research and not knee-jerk reactionism. More cynical observers said they believed other racing sanctions would have to lead the way when it came to safety innovations.

The predictions that NASCAR would never be more than a reactionary sanctioning body in safety improvements have proven to be untrue. The Research and Development Center has begun its operations in earnest. Originally housed in a former race shop in Conover, North Carolina, the center appeared at first to be little more than a storage facility for Earnhardt's wrecked car. Little news worthy of public notice ever came from the facility. Now that the R&D Center is housed in its permanent home in Concord, North Carolina, and Director Gary Nelson has his staff in place, the center has taken on a greater role in protecting drivers' lives.

The center is a 61,000-square-foot facility that opened for business in January 2003. It contains NASCAR's accident investigation group as well as departments devoted to computer modeling, engineering, fabrication, CNC fabrication, fluid dynamics, and dyno testing. All departments are available for testing and refining safety initiatives. NASCAR spent $10 million to build the R&D Center and has budgeted another $40 million over the next 10 years to fund the facility's operations.

One of the most talked about changes to take place at NASCAR's highest racing levels is the proliferation of a roof escape hatch. Conceived as a way to make it easier for drivers to exit when the car is on its side or the driver-side window is otherwise blocked, the hatch fits in perfectly with NASCAR's philosophy that the best solutions are the simple ones. NASCAR R&D engineers went through several variations of the roof escape hatch before they hit upon a design that met Nelson's approval. Nelson, who gained fame as both a winning crewchief and NASCAR's Winston Cup series director, is one of the most respected technicians in racing and knows enough not to be fooled by gimmickry.

The result is a design that tries to answer every contingency. It can be swung open from either the front or rear, or the driver can activate both releases and remove the hatch from the roof entirely. The hatch is held to the roof with two hinges. Each hinge is made up of two spring-loaded pins connected by a piece of wire. If the driver pulls the wire, it pulls in both pins, releasing the latch. If the same is done to the other side of the hatch, it comes completely free from the car.

After settling on the design, NASCAR released it to its teams around the middle of the '03 season. Michael Waltrip was the only driver to race with the escape hatch last season, but Nelson sees the safety measure catching on in the near future. "Even though it's simple and pretty easy to install," Nelson explains, "the hatch design came out right at the point last season where most race teams were winding down their inventory for 2003 and beginning to build new cars for 2004. So, as they build their new cars, I expect many more teams to include the hatch. Some of the teams with smaller drivers that can get in and out quickly may not decide to, but we leave that up to them. But even guys like Jeff Gordon have told me they are going to start using it.