The Search For Answers

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – One day after the tragic death of Winston Cup star Dale Earnhardt - as the result of an accident on the final lap of Sunday’s Daytona 500 - NASCAR held a press conference just outside the speedway to address the situation.

NASCAR Chairman Bill France, President Mike Helton, driver Michael Waltrip and Dr. Steve Bohannon – who worked on Earnhardt at the track and pronounced his death at nearby Halifax Medical Center – were on hand to address the media.

“This is a tough period in NASCAR’s history,” France said. “I can’t think of any time that’s been more tough… He was a dear friend and really loved the sport.”

Helton, who fairly recently replaced France as NASCAR’s president, answered the majority of the questions that hit topics from funeral arrangements and the HANS (head-and-neck restraint) device to whether the Winston Cup Series race would be held next Sunday.

Helton announced that the race at Rockingham would go on as scheduled, that funeral arrangements were yet to be announced by Earnhardt’s wife Teresa and his car owner Richard Childress, and that work on the HANS device is continuous.

“There is no formal process (in implementing such a safety feature),” Helton said. “Safety is our No. 1 priority and we’ve said the HANS device is more than an option for drivers, we recommend to drivers that they try it and the developers improve it. It’s a joint effort by every mind in the garage area to make these devices work right. It’s an ongoing process… we are always looking at new technologies.”

Waltrip, who drove an Earnhardt-owned car to victory in the Daytona 500, said he will be testing the HANS device in a couple of weeks, but believes it should remain a driver’s option.

“The HANS is something that all of us are curious about, and there are mixed reviews about it,” Waltrip said. “Some like the way it stabilizes the head, but some are concerned about how well you can get out the car in the case of an accident with it on.

“In the car, that’s my responsibility, and the HANS device is just and option that I’ve not elected to use yet. I don’t think its something that should be made a requirement, but something drivers need to investigate to see if it’s right for them.”

Dr. Bohannon is still not convinced the HANS device would have made a difference in Earnhardt’s accident.

“In this case, there was a fracture in the base of the skull, and when that happens there can also be significant injuries to the base of the brain, which is what caused his death,” Bohannon said. “It’s a matter of speculation (whether the HANS device would have saved his life). Even if you restrain the head and neck, with an impact at 150 or 170 mph, the body has elements that are floating internally, the brain is in fluid… All of those organs still move on impact, such as the brain hitting on the inner portion of the skull. The brain may be injured, bruised or torn with an impact of that nature.”

Waltrip also said Earnhardt’s accident in Turn 4, the result of contact with the car driven by Sterling Marlin, was nothing out of the ordinary or caused by a new aerodynamic package NASCAR implemented for the race.

“That was just a racing incident,” Waltrip said. “The checkered flag was getting ready to be waved… It wasn’t the result of anything other than guys racing hard towards the checkers on the last lap.”

Waltrip was also a spokesman for the Earnhardt family – Dale’s wife Teresa, sons Dale Jr. and Kerry, daughters Kelly and Taylor Nicole, and Earnhardt’s mother, Martha.

“I talked with Teresa and Dale Jr. and they asked me to speak on their behalf and express their sincere gratitude to everyone,” Waltrip said. “The outpouring of good wishes has been overwhelming.”

Though the cheering is obviously muffled for Waltrip’s win, he says he’ll always cherish the time he had with his car owner and friend.

“Dale has meant so much to so many, I hope you’ll always keep him and his family in your prayers,” Waltrip said. “My wife Buffy and I treasure the times we spent with Dale and Teresa.

“When I was in victory lane, I just couldn’t wait for that grab on the neck and big hug from Dale… that just wasn’t meant to be.”

There will never be another Dale Earnhardt, but France stressed the sport must move forward to try to fill the void.

“It will take time to fill that void… if we ever fill it,” France said. “I’m sure we will. Life has to go on. Somebody is going to come along. Curtis Turner was a hard-charging driver, Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherly… they were the Dale Earnhardt’s of their era. Dale Jr. looks like he has good potential to follow in his father’s footsteps."

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