Belt Breaks In Earnhardt Crash
February 23, 2001 | 10:00 A.M. EST
NASCAR Winston Cup Director Gary Nelson said the broken lap belt allowed Earnhardt’s body to “move forward and to the right,” and that Earnhardt’s chin, chest and face “likely contacted the steering wheel,” causing major impact that resulted in a skull fracture and broken ribs.
Both Nelson and NASCAR President Mike Helton vehemently refused to speculate as to when the belt might have broken, but that the broken device was discovered on Sunday night. Nelson said it was the first time in the 52-year history of NASCAR that the sport has seen something like this happen.
"It's a little confusing how something like this might happen because we’re not talking about a start-up race team that’s struggling with people and sponsorship and things like that," said driver David Green. "I find it real shocking that a belt was the culprit. I’m sure they’re going to find out the true story and we’ll get a verification on it soon."
Nelson said while all of the safety latches on the five-point harness were in place, the fatal movement was allowed by the thread separation of the left side lap belt.
“It’s difficult because this has never happened before,” Nelson said. “The best way to describe this is that the integrity of the restraint system was extremely compromised.”
The five-point harness connects to the roll cage of the car in addition to the seat. Nelson said the piece of broken lap belt wound up on the floorboard of Earnhardt’s car.
Richard Childress, owner of the No. 3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet formerly driven by Earnhardt, said the Monte Carlo used by the RCR team at Daytona was a brand new car, built in November of 2000, and that the belts were also brand new.
"As many lives that have been saved by that equipment, it's shocking that something like that would have failed," said Randy LaJoie, who won the Busch Series event at Daytona last week. "To have something fail like that is devastating. We don’t know what caused the failure, but I’m sure they’re looking into it... It will be better for all of us once we find out, but we still haven’t gotten a good explanation yet as to why it happened."
Helton said the investigation into Earnhardt’s death would continue, but that NASCAR won’t say anything more than the fact the lap belt broke until they can come up with more conclusive evidence.
“We’re not making any judgments or developing any theories about anything just yet,” Helton said. “We’ve got some of the best people in the business working on this. As in any study, however, we don’t know how and when or if ever an answer will come. Anything else we can say would just be speculation.”
Dr. Steve Bohannon, Director of Emergency Medical Services at Daytona International Speedway, said it’s not certain whether or not an uncompromised left lap belt would have kept Earnhardt alive, but that his chances of surviving the crash into the wall in Turn 4 would have been better.
“If the belt would have held, it would have most likely resulted in a different set of injuries, but we don’t know as to what extent that would have been.”
Dr. Bohannon ruled out the possibility of the lap belt being cut by rescue personnel following the accident.
Dr. Bohannon also said that had Earnhardt worn a full-faced helmet, “it would have been a benefit.” Earnhardt was one of a few Winston Cup drivers who raced with an open-faced helmet.
While some have speculated on Earnhardt’s “throw caution to the wind attitude” about racing, Childress would hear none of it.
“Dale did wear the five-point harness, and it’s a belt he’s worn for, well, forever,” said Childress. “Dale was one of the more safety conscious drivers I’ve ever come across.”
Some drivers have switched to a new six-point harness system - which consists of two lap belts, two shoulder harnesses, and two leg straps (one more than the five-point harness) - and is made to hold the driver in the seat better.
If the driver is held in the seat tighter, there is much less forward movement in the event of a crash. Because of the added support from under the body frame, the driver does not tend to “submarine” or sink down in the seat in the event of a rapid deceleration.
“In crashes it will hold you to the seat much better,” said Busch Series regular Shane Hall, who switched to the six-point system last week. “It’s really a great thing.”
Helton said since no conclusions have been drawn, no rules changes or other additional safety equipment will be implemented this weekend at North Carolina Speedway.
“We will open up at Rockingham with the same rules and the same safety inspection procedures we’ve had in the past,” Helton said. “If we knew there was something we could do, of course we would do it. We don’t have the luxury of drawing conclusions that give us the ability to react.”