The Earnhardt Investigation
August 21, 2001 | 11:00 P.M. EST
The report on the February crash that took the life of the seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion concluded he most likely died from a blow to the lower-back portion of his head, and that caused the basilar-skull fracture that killed him, not a severe head whipping as stated in earlier reports.
Also, NASCAR concluded Earnhardt’s seat belt did separate – at the adjuster on the lower-left lap belt – but the separation was likely caused by “dumping” of the belt into a twisted adjuster. The report did not, however, determine the degree of influence the separated belt had on the tragedy.
The blow to the head - as stated by Dr. James Raddin of the Biodynamic Research Corporation, and Dr. Dean Sicking of the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility - occurred after what they believe to be a complex series of movements of Earnhardt’s body.
The reports findings – not conclusions – were that after Earnhardt veered toward the wall in the Daytona 500, he was hit by the car driven by Ken Schrader. That changed Earnhardt’s angle of impact and moved Earnhardt’s head to the right. Upon impact with the wall, Earnhardt, with his helmet rolling forward off his head, moved forward and to the left– after the seat belt separated – and slammed into the steering wheel.
It was either that impact, or the rebound impact back into the seat that cause the blow to the head and thus the basilar-skull fracture.
“Yes, we have a conclusion here,” Raddin said. “But the conclusion is not the easiest conclusion to report. It would certainly be easier to say, ‘This did it’ or ‘That did it.’ Instead, we have concluded 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.”
After the 80-miunte presentation, NASCAR President Mike Helton did not make any definitive announcements about possible safety changes.
“There’s not a resolution tomorrow that we can go forward with,” Helton said. “We are not going to react just for the sake of reaction.”
Helton did, however, mention, five areas of improvement:
1. NASCAR has strongly recommended head-and-neck restraints – such as the HANS or Hutchens devices - and increased window openings so drivers can get out the cars easier with those devices.
“We’re pleased that a majority of Winston Cup drivers now use it,” Helton said. “But we’re not completely satisfied. We’ve intensified our efforts with drivers, equipment manufacturers, outside experts with the goal of helping all drivers find a system which they feel comfortable with.”
But Helton announced NASCAR will not make the devices mandatory.
Only two of 43 drivers in last weekend’s Winston Cup race at Michigan failed to wear this type of device.
“There has already been change in the sport, and a great deal was initiated by NASCAR,” said Jeremy Mayfield, driver of the No. 12 Mobil 1 Taurus. “Everybody has been looking harder at how they do things, like mounting belts and harnesses, and how they fit the seats. Just about every driver is wearing some kind of head-and-neck restraint device now. More drivers are looking a lot closer at what is around them in the driver’s area, and making changes.”
2. NASCAR will form a commission to study the strength and requirements of seat belt restraint systems.
3. Crash data recorders – much like the black boxes used in commercial airliners to collect important crash data - will be used on cars beginning next season.
4. The sanctioning body will hire a liaison between the drivers and local hospitals. He won’t be a director on the level of CART’s Steve Olvey, but it should improve the medical process.
5. NASCAR will hire a specialist to oversee the investigation of future crashes.
“We’re all doing everything we can do to make the sport as safe as it can be,” said Kyle Petty, whose son Adam was killed last May in a practice crash at New Hampshire. “As long as we’re running at high rates of speed, though, racing is never going to be 100 percent safe. That’s just a fact of our sport.
“We could slow things down and run about 20 miles per hour, and the racing would be a whole lot safer. But, it wouldn’t be as much fun to do and it sure wouldn’t be as much fun to watch. As long as everybody is working to make it as safe as it can be, I don’t know that we can ask for much more.”
The report focused on four areas: Vehicle Dynamics, Occupant Kinematics, Biomechanics and Injury Causation. Sicking, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, led the team that looked at vehicle dynamics.
Among its conclusions was that Schrader hit Earnhardt at about 170 mph, causing Earnhardt’s angle to change to a more frontal hit. Earnhardt was traveling about 156-161 mph when he hit the wall at an angle of about 57 degrees.
Raddin said there were “variations in which the belt system was installed.” The main variation was on the left lap belt. That belt had a “pull-up” adjuster, and if it was installed as manufactured, the adjuster would have been inside the slot in the seat where the belt runs to the buckle.
The adjuster in Earnhardt’s car was installed further down so it would be outside the slot in the seat. Under load – and that is when the belt separated, according to the report – the adjuster torqued, and the belt gathered – “dumped,” and then ripped.
“First of all, I can tell you very precisely that it was not a result of the mis-positioning based upon the findings that I showed you with the way the lock bar was initially positioned straight across the belt,” Raddin said “So it was not a misadjusted belt.”
Raddin said there were a number of potential causes, perhaps something as simple as an “asymmetrical” load. But Raddin couldn’t say for certain whether it was the installation or routing of the belt that caused the “dumping” and then separation.
The hit by Schrader was a crucial part of the accident.
“A two- or three degree change in trajectory angle requires a 25 percent increase in energy dissipation,” Sicking said.
The impact with the wall occurred four-tenths of a second after the hit from Schrader and changed the velocity of Earnhardt’s car by 42 to 44 mph.
“This is a severe hit,” Sicking said.
Also, all of Earnhardt’s lateral velocity was taken out, which was a “worst-case scenario,” Sicking said.
Schrader was cleared of any wrongdoing, as he was traveling at 170 mph and had about 300 milliseconds to react – about the length of time it takes to blink an eye.
The seat belt separation was “not the result of a mis-positioning,” Raddin said. Perhaps a case, Raddin said, was an asymmetrical load of the belt at the adjuster.
Several Winston Cup drivers reacted Tuesday to the results of NASCAR’s investigation in a positive manner.
“I applaud NASCAR and the team of experts they assembled for their efforts,” said Mark Martin, driver of the No. 6 Viagra Taurus. “It was a very complex accident and there were many factors that contributed to Dale’s death. I’m sure based on this investigation that some good will come out of it that will improve safety and research for every driver at any level of racing.”
Earnhardt’s widow, Teresa, was also pleased with the results of NASCAR’s probe.
“My family and I appreciate NASCAR’s thorough report into Dale’s accident,” she said. “The findings released today are based on the most comprehensive informational available and appear to be consistent with previously released medical reports and our own understanding. We thank NASCAR for its good faith effort to make the facts known and look forward to hearing future recommendations.”
Helton spoke first Tuesday. He talked about the safety improvements over the 52-year history of NASCAR, including the improvements made over the past two or three years. Helton mentioned three safety items initially – fuel cells, roof flaps and improvements to roll cages – as proof that NASCAR is safety conscious.
The controversy began seconds from the end of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18. Running third behind winner Michael Waltrip and son Dale Earnhardt Jr., Earnhardt was tapped by Sterling Marlin while jockeying for position on the final lap.
Earnhardt’s famous black No. 3 Chevy turned left, caught the apron and shot up the track in Turn 4. He slammed into the outside wall about a 57-degree angle, was hit by Schrader and slowly rode along the wall… and then down the banking. Paramedics quickly reached his car, but Earnhardt was already dead.
Hours after the race, Helton announced Earnhardt had been killed.
The following Friday, NASCAR announced Earnhardt’s seat belt had “separated.” Many then assumed Earnhardt had come out of his seat and struck the steering wheel.
Meanwhile, the Orlando Sentinel and the University of Florida’s student newspaper wanted to view the autopsy photos, but Teresa Earnhardt sued to keep them private. Florida law said the photos couldn’t be viewed – unless they were part of a criminal investigation.
But Teresa won her case, and the photos were sealed. Plus, the Florida legislature passed a new law prohibiting the publishing of autopsy photos.
As part of the settlement, an outside arbitrator, Duke University’s Dr. Barry Myers, viewed the photos and reviewed the case. Myers decided that Earnhardt had died of basilar-skull fracture, the result of his head whipping forward while the rest of his body stayed still. This seemed to contradict the assumption that Earnhardt moved forward because of a broken seat belt.
Bill Simpson, the maker of Earnhardt’s seat belt, claimed all along that the belt, if properly installed, could not break. Simpson repeatedly tried to meet with NASCAR to try to clear his name but was unsuccessful. Simpson resigned from his company last month in the wake of the controversy.
Meanwhile, NASCAR was in the midst of a secret six-month investigation.
Earnhardt’s death was the fourth in under a year. On May 12, 2000, Adam Petty was killed when his car slammed the Turn 3 wall at New Hampshire International Speedway. Less than two months later, Kenny Irwin died in almost the same spot. On Oct. 13 of last year, Craftsman Truck Series driver Tony Roper was killed in a crash at Texas Motor Speedway.
The exact causes of all three crashes and what caused the three drivers’ deaths were never fully determined. It’s believed all three died of injuries similar to Earnhardt’s, as no other major injuries were found.
Security was tight at the Hyatt Regency, with undercover Atlanta police watching the crowd in the Atrium level of the downtown hotel. Media had to display credentials to be allowed in the ballroom where the press conference was held. Several television trucks were parked on the streets around the hotel.
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