Cloudy Conclusions

Looking to sum up Tuesday's activities in Atlanta?

Try this one on, courtesy of Dr. James Raddin, one of the NASCAR-hired safety experts.

"Your question as to whether or not we have a conclusion here - yes, we have a conclusion here, but the conclusion is not, as I said earlier, the easiest conclusion to report."

Huh?

Raddin has blue-chip credentials in the area of crash safety, so if there's a translation problem, it must be ours.

"Maybe it would certainly be easier if we could say, 'This did it' or 'That did it,'" continued Raddin. "But what instead we have concluded is that there are a number of factors in which the timing came together to produce this result in a restraint system which would be expected to do considerably better under circumstances when this kind of confluence of factors did not come together."

There. Got it now?

OK, maybe not.

Maybe you should simply take this away from NASCAR's long-awaited report on the Dale Earnhardt crash investigation: The seatbelt tore on impact with the wall, and while it may not have been directly responsible for the precise blow that killed the driver, it sure as hell didn't help matters.

We were expecting at least two major breakthroughs from Tuesday's shindig: 1. What killed Earnhardt; 2. What we do to prevent it from happening again.

As for No. 1: One thing didn't do it. It was a combination of factors resulting in the "perfect wreck" - naturally, the only kind you would expect could take out Superman.

And No. 2: NASCAR talks now of installing crash-data recorders ("black boxes") by next year and hiring a full-time medical leader. But as for new designs to the chassis, walls or cockpits, those changes will continue to move along incrementally - which isn't always fast enough for those who desire dramatic pronouncements, but just the right and familiar speed NASCAR has long employed.

Therefore, some left Atlanta with an empty, frustrated feeling. NASCAR insiders had been hinting for a few weeks now that Tuesday's report at the downtown Hyatt would shed all necessary light on the tragedy, giving us all the answers we wanted, and probably even some we didn't.

But every NASCAR suit from Mike Helton to Gary Nelson to Billy France himself has always issued the same stock response regarding racing safety: It's a constantly moving process. If you're looking for quick, knee-jerk movement, look elsewhere.

Some theorized Tuesday would be the day NASCAR made a continental shift of historic proportions - perhaps falling on its sword and begging for forgiveness, with a promise to be more open and dramatic with its safety pursuits.

But even in a sport built on split-second decisions and the occasional breathtaking risk, NASCAR's rulers always look both ways before crossing.

"There's not a resolution tomorrow that we can go forward with, because we're not going to react just for the sake of reacting," Helton said. "But there are things we can do in the meantime."

But what frustrates the rest of us is, there's no one area you can point to as a main target for improvement. According to the two experts on display Tuesday - Drs. Dean Sicking and Raddin - test results conclude that Earnhardt pitched right in his seat when his car, veering up the banking between Turns 3 and 4, was broadsided by Ken Schrader's car. Then, upon hitting the outside wall, Earnhardt obviously pitched violently forward.

Here's where facts give way to slippery probabilities. Earnhardt, according to Raddin, either hit the left-rear part of his head on the steering wheel (remember, his upper body had pitched to the right from the contact with Schrader), or hit his head when he rebounded backward into his seat. In an opinion that also differs with that of an earlier examiner - Dr. Barry Myers, who studied the autopsy photos - Raddin believes the head impact is what fractured Earnhardt's skull. Myers' diagnosis was that it was caused by the too-common whiplash motion.

But even if you agree with the report by Raddin and Sicking, two men whose credentials hint that you should, you're still left with further questions. Unanswerable questions.

Was it the torn seatbelt that led to Earnhardt's death? Could he have pitched forward far enough if his belt had held?

"I've not made a separate study of that, but I think that's certainly possible," said Raddin. "I think it's certainly possible for a head impact to occur with a steering wheel with an intact belt, because that does in fact happen."

Bill Simpson, the longtime safety-equipment guru whose company supplied Earnhardt's belt system, hardly supports the possibility that his belts could fail... IF INSTALLED PROPERLY. And judging by Simpson's press gathering following the Atlanta presentation, we'll hear more about seatbelts in the days and weeks to come. And I still hold to the belief that some of that fallout may eventually take place before a man in a black robe.

Another question: Would Earnhardt have been saved by a HANS device or something similar?

"We're not clear that had such a system been in use here, as to what that outcome might have been," Raddin said.

We do know that it wouldn't have hurt. And about now, we'll take any certainty we can get.

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