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'We've Lost Dale Earnhardt'

Legendary Driver Killed in Crash in Final Turn of Daytona 500

NASCAR has been slow to add new safety equipment, but maybe a lesson can be learned from this terrible loss.

February 19, 2001|Mike Kupper

Just the other day, a wire service story out of Daytona Beach, Fla., on how stock car racing could be made safer, had a number of Winston Cup drivers saying, basically, that safety was their problem, not NASCAR's, and that they certainly didn't want the racing organization telling them what precautions they had to take.

"When I started driving, we weren't even using seat belts," the retired Richard Petty, NASCAR's greatest star and now a car owner, was quoted as saying.

Petty is lucky. He's still around to recall the good ol' boys in the good ol' days.

Dale Earnhardt was not so lucky. Earnhardt, possibly NASCAR's greatest star besides Petty, will not be sitting around the garage, years from now, telling reporters how, in his day, he bumped and sideswiped his way around Daytona's 2.5-mile tri-oval at 190 mph, flipping off other drivers, shaking his fist, wagging his finger at them, all with nary a thought of wearing a head-restraint system.

Sunday, a day that should have been the happiest of his professional life for Michael Waltrip, who drove a car owned by Earnhardt to victory--his first in a long and otherwise frustrating Winston Cup career--a day on which Tony Stewart, his car airborne, then hit repeatedly by other cars, suffered only minor injuries in as frightening an accident as the Daytona 500 has ever produced, Earnhardt was killed in another, far less scary-looking, accident, in the last turn of the last lap.

His car was tapped from behind by Sterling Marlin's, turned right and drove into the outside retaining wall. Lots of other bad stuff happened after that, but for Earnhardt, none of that mattered. By then, in all likelihood, he was already dead.

Steve Bohannon, an emergency and trauma surgeon at Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach, where Earnhardt was taken, said that Earnhardt had died of head injuries, "basically to the back of the skull," and that he had probably died on impact.

That, unfortunately, is what usually happens in that kind of accident.

Only a week ago, The Times carried a two-part special report on auto racing safety, which explained in detail how basal skull fractures and similar injuries caused by violent head movement have been the most common cause of death among race drivers over the last 10 years.

What happens, in the kind of crash that took Earnhardt, is that at point of impact, the driver's seat harness keeps his body from surging forward but the head keeps moving. When it has stretched forward as far as it can go, the base of the skull snaps off the spinal cord and blood vessels rupture, causing an instantaneous bleed-out.

Those who read the series know that there is a head-and-neck restraint system, known as HANS, available to drivers. It still is a work in progress but has been credited with probably saving the life of CART driver Christian Fittipaldi last July in an accident at the Chicago Motor Speedway. Most drivers don't like it much because it is big and bulky and restrictive. But then, drivers didn't much like seat belts, or helmets, or flame retardant one-piece uniforms, or face shields, or harnesses or any of the safety features that have become commonplace over the years.

If it were up to the drivers, many would still be showing up for work on race day in T-shirts, jeans and sneakers.

CART, one of the organizations that runs open-cockpit Indy-style racing in the United States, has mandated the use of the HANS in the coming season. Formula One, the international series of open-cockpit racing, will go to it in 2002.

NASCAR? Well, NASCAR has its reservations. NASCAR isn't quite sure that device has a place in its cars, supposedly, because they are full-bodied machines, much safer than the open-cockpit cars. On the telecast of Sunday's race, one of the announcers showed a cutaway version of a Winston Cup car, pointed out the three-quarter inch thick roll-cage and concluded that it was the safest car in auto racing, a mobile vault. That, of course, was before Earnhardt's accident.

So what now?

It took the 1994 death of Aryton Senna, Formula One's greatest star, to make the grand prix organization realize that driver safety is of primary importance and that dramatic changes were necessary.

It took the 1999 death of rising star Greg Moore to make CART realize that driver safety is of primary importance and that dramatic changes were necessary.

Does it always take the death of a high-profile driver to make racing organizations realize the obvious? Apparently so.

Now, Dale Earnhardt is dead. He wasn't wearing a HANS, nor can anyone say for certain that, even if he had been, it would have saved his life. But perhaps if NASCAR had mandated that drivers use head-restraint systems, just as it mandates the use of restrictor plates on their carburetors in some races, we wouldn't be having this discussion. Perhaps if he had been wearing one, Earnhardt would be saying today how hitting the wall sure makes you sore.

Perhaps, in years to come, Earnhardt would have been sitting in his garage, telling reporters how, in his day, he bumped and sideswiped . . .

Your move, NASCAR.

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