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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Dale Earnhardt Sr. was a famous US racing car driver who died in a crash on the last lap of the annual Daytona 500, the biggest race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, on 18 February 2001, aged 49. Over the years, he won 76 races in the series, and his seven championships were equalled only by ‘The King’, Richard Petty.

In 2001, Earnhardt did not win a race in Speedweeks, the lead-up to the Daytona 500. This was unusual for him, but he seemed confident and relaxed on the morning of the big race. He was leading in the early stages and was among the front-runners for most of the race. Towards the end, a multi-car crash took out a number of cars. After a red flag period, the race resumed and Michael Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Earnhardt were running first, second, and third.

Sterling Marlin, in fourth, was pushing Earnhardt all the way, but Dale blocked him. With just three laps to go, Marlin and Earnhardt made contact. On the second last lap, commentator Darrell Waltrip said on Fox that: “Sterling has beat the front end off of that old Dodge [his car], trying to get around Dale.”

With less than half a lap to go, the leaders entered Turn 3 after the 3,000 foot (900 meter) Back Stretch. Earnhardt was in the middle lane and still third, behind Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. Marlin was in the bottom lane and behind Earnhardt. Rusty Wallace was directly behind Dale and Ken Schrader was in the top lane and behind him. Somehow, Earnhardt veered down the track, his left rear corner hitting Marlin’s front bumper. This caused Earnhardt to turn sharply to the left, heading off the banking and onto the apron. His car then turned quickly to the right and up the track at Turn 4 and hit the concrete retaining wall at close to 160 miles an hour (260 kilometers an hour), colliding with Schrader on the way.

As soon as Earnhardt hit the wall, his right rear wheel broke off, the window of the passenger door blew out, and the hood pins broke, resulting in the hood flying up and hitting the windscreen. Schrader pushed Earnhardt along as both cars slid down the track and onto the infield. Schrader jumped out and went to Earnhardt, who did not respond, and he desperately signaled for assistance. By then, the race had finished.

Earnhardt had to be cut from his car and was taken straight to nearby Halifax Medical Center, rather than the infield care center, but could not be revived. Two hours later, NASCAR president Mike Helton told a press conference, “Undoubtedly this is one of the toughest announcements I’ve personally had to make. After the accident in Turn 4 at the end of the Daytona 500, we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.”

The findings of the autopsy were that Earnhardt had died from “blunt force injuries to the head”. The report stated that his injuries included a fatal basilar skull fracture, as well as eight broke ribs, broken ankle, fractured breast bone, and abrasions to the collarbone and hip. This last finding is an indication that his seatbelts might have failed.

Initially, Sterling Marlin, received death threats from those who felt he had caused the fatality. Marlin commented: “I definitely didn’t do anything intentional. We were just racing our guts out for the last lap of the Daytona 500. Everybody was going for it. Dale’s car got caught in the middle. I was as low as I could go. Whether Rusty got him loose and down into me, I don’t know.” Earnhardt Jr. came out in defense of Marlin, asking people to stop looking for someone to blame for the accident.

There was a police investigation and NASCAR ran its own investigation. NASCAR investigations are not usually made public, but just about every detail of the one into Earnhardt’s death was released. NASCAR found that Earnhardt’s left lap belt on his seatbelt harness had broken, with Dr. Steve Bohannon believing that the belt was faulty and this had let Earnhardt’s chin hit the steering wheel, causing his fatal basilar skull fracture.

This finding immediately led to speculation that the racer would have lived if the seatbelt hadn’t broken. Paramedics at the crash scene said his seatbelts were loose but not broken. NASCAR maintained that Earnhardt’s harness buckle was 4-8 inches (10-20 centimeters) off-center and that this meant his lap belt had to have broken. Notwithstanding, a later medical investigation found that seatbelt failure was not a significant factor in his death. Bill Simpson of Simpson Race Products, the supplier of seatbelts in nearly all cars in the NASCAR series, said the seatbelt failed due to incorrect installation as that was how Earnhardt liked it as it improved his comfort level.

A Duke University expert on crash injuries, Dr. Barry Myers, studied Earnhardt’s death. Rejecting NASCAR’s findings, he concluded that Earnhardt died because his head and neck were not properly restrained, snapping them forward, rather than a broken seatbelt. Several experts backed up Myers’ claim, including Philip Villanueva, a neurosurgeon from the University of Miami, Dr. Steve Olvey, Champion Auto Racing Teams’ medical director, and John Melvin, a crash expert from Wayne State University.

A further NASCAR investigation found that Earnhardt’s death was due to several factors, including the collision with Schrader an instant before hitting the wall, the speed and the angle of impact with the wall, and the seatbelt breaking. The investigation was unable to determine if a device to restrain Earnhardt’s head and neck would have saved his life.

Simpson Race Products wanted NASCAR to state the following about Earnhardt’s broken lap belt: that the belts were high quality and had no defects, they met NASCAR standards, the belts were not installed properly, the lap belt broke due to improper installation, and that in any case, the broken belt did not cause his death. NASCAR did not respond.

Various safety improvements were made after Earnhardt’s death and subsequent investigations. Most drivers went from a five-point to a six-point safety harness. Nearly all drivers used head and neck restraints. Soft walls were installed at race tracks. NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow uses safety features found important in research after Earnhardt’s death.

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