Keeping Safety Secrets

ROCKINGHAM, N.C. - Don't know about you, but I think somebody, somewhere, was telling Junior to stay away from the track this week.

Sure, it could've been just another "one of them racin' deals," but the spooky irony was too much to ignore.

On the very first lap of racing following the death of Dale Earnhardt in last Sunday's Daytona 500, the still-stunned NASCAR community witnessed something that sent more shudders throughout.

When the Dura Lube 400 at Rockingham finally went green after more than an hour's rain delay, things went bad in a hurry. As the 43-car field made its way through the banking of Turns 3 and 4, one car staggered and checked up, setting off a chain reaction of cars scrambling for clear running room.

Before it ends, one car is headlong into the wall.

No way. Please don't say it. Can't be, can it?

Yes, to everyone's disbelief, it's the No. 8 Chevrolet of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

And he hits in exactly the same area of the race track where his father hit at Daytona. And at the same angle. It was at a much lower rate of speed, but still hard enough to permanently cripple the car.

For a moment or so, you've never heard a quieter race track, as all eyes focused on the mind-boggling sight on the far banking, where Junior eventually crawled from the car and limped down the asphalt hill alongside a track safety worker.

When Junior gave his reason for the slight limp, things took on an even stranger feel.

"The lap belt was a little too tight, so I'm a little bruised-up," said Junior, two days after NASCAR announced that his dad's seatbelt had snapped in the Daytona crash.

The race would eventually be postponed by rain and rescheduled for Monday resumption, making a long weekend at The Rock even longer.

But if, years from now, we're still talking about what happened at Rockingham the week after Dale Earnhardt's tragic death, we might not be talking about anything that happened at the track. But, rather, what happened in a tent outside Turn 4 on Friday morning.

The whole episode left one with a creepy feeling that, before this year is done, the world of stock-car racing may be neck-deep in legal briefs. It's a gut feeling, but a strong one.

It all started when NASCAR President Mike Helton and rules czar Gary Nelson called a press conference to go public with news that was beginning to dribble out on its own.

Dale Earnhardt's seatbelt had split, presumably during his deadly plunge into the wall of the East banking at the Daytona 500. The failure of the belt to hold together - a failure no one has seen before - might have played a role in his death. Maybe a big role. But then again, maybe not.

"Certainly, no one can say for sure what would have happened if his restraint system would have held," said Daytona Beach trauma specialist Dr. Steve Bohannon, who was on hand that Friday in his continuing role as explainer of all things medical. "He would have had a much better chance of survival."

Now, word is, Earnhardt's chin hit his steering wheel, and that was the blow that caused the skull fracture. Suddenly, the focus turns to new areas: Earnhardt's continued desire to wear an open-faced helmet, when all those around him were wearing full-faced head gear.

"If he had protection over his chin in this area of contact, the forces would have been different to his body, and he would have had a different pattern of injuries," said Dr. Bohannon. "Certainly, in this particular case, a full-face helmet would have been a benefit."

But on this issue, you don't blame anyone. Nothing in the rules requires full-faced helmets, and it was Earnhardt's preference to wear the older-style gear.

The seatbelt, however, is another story, and one that probably won't go away soon.

The most puzzling aspect of Friday's announcement - why? Why did NASCAR go public in a manner so unlike them in times of tragedy? NASCAR, perhaps due to a fear of courtrooms, has always kept their investigations in-house.

Apparently, with news leaking out about the belt, they knew the smart thing was to address it openly. And you credit them for that. Problem is, they say they have no other facts, only that the belt split. They refuse to speculate. They've opened the door to a maze.

"... There was a broken left lap belt - a seatbelt from the left side of the lap belt came apart," said Helton. "We don't know why. We don't know how. We don't know when - yet."

Nope, not yet. And no one may ever find out those answers. But you can bet the farm, they'll try. All within NASCAR want to know why, naturally, so they can avoid the next one-in-a-million possibility.

Bill Simpson, head of the Simpson racing gear company who has been providing safety equipment for 43 years, was reportedly unhappy with the decision to open this can of worms. Though Helton and Nelson refused any speculation Friday, no one else did. And Simpson didn't welcome becoming part of the story.

"Our seatbelts, when properly installed, won't fail," Simpson said in a written statement. "And we know thousands of drivers are living testimony to our work."

Why did it break?

"This morning," said Helton, "we're not going to speculate on what we may think beyond the fact that we conclusively know that the lap belt is in two pieces."

It's something no one has ever seen before. How was the integrity of the belt fabric compromised? Flaw in the material? Was it rubbing against something that caused slight weakening? Was it simply installed improperly, as the wording in Simpson's release might indicate? No one believes it was the blow to the wall, regardless of the impact, because no belt has ever snapped before.

NASCAR has always managed to keep such investigations behind their doors. They'll do the same this time, if they're lucky. But this time, that's not an automatic assumption.

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