crash at the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, according to results of a six-month NASCAR
investigation released yesterday.
The seven-time Winston Cup champion died from a blow to his head when his
No. 3 car struck a wall at nearly 160 mph during the final lap. The two-volume
report, compiled by two NASCAR experts, revealed that the breaking of a left
lap belt found in the wreckage was among the causes of death, but not the only
"Dale Earnhardt died as a result of several factors coming together at
precisely the wrong moment," the report said. "The location of the accident
[the turn], the unavoidable collision with car No. 36 [driven by Ken Schrader],
the pre-positioning of the head that was caused by that collision, the
severity of the wall impact caused by the angle and velocity of the car into
the wall, the separation of the seat belt, and the rotation of the helmet
forward on the head."
James H. Raddin Jr., M.D., director of a San Antonio-based biodynamics
research corporation, and Dean L. Sicking, Ph.D, a professor of civil
engineering at the University of Nebraska, led a 54-person team in an
investigation that a NASCAR official estimated cost "well into the seven
Speculation had been rampant that a faulty lap belt was the main cause of
death. With the use of crash-test dummies, computer models and further
investigation of the crash site, the report came to two conclusions.
"First, Dale Earnhardt was committed to safety," the report said. "He chose
to install his [safety belt] restraint system in a manner that he believed
would be the most beneficial to him. His system had served him well over many
years in many types of accidents, some of them quite severe.
"Second, the seat belt separation cannot be isolated as the sole cause of
Dale Earnhardt's death. While the separation of the lap belt increased the
potential for serious injury, the precise timing of the separation during the
impact is unknown. It is impossible to determine with certainty whether Dale
Earnhardt would or would not have survived if the lap belt had remained intact."
Although NASCAR president Mike Helton said the racing circuit would not
institute any "quick fixes" to address safety issues, it announced a few
changes that may occur during the next two years:
The placing in cars of data boxes, similar to black boxes on airplanes that
record important data during accidents.
The recommendation of head-and-neck restraints to be used by drivers.
A medical liaison to coordinate efforts of doctors at different racetracks
throughout the country.
A study into seat belt restraints and head-and-neck restraints.
Teresa Earnhardt, the driver's widow, called the findings of the
investigation "the most comprehensive information available."
"We thank NASCAR for its good-faith effort to make the facts known, and
look forward to hearing future recommendations," she said in a statement.
Helton said the upcoming changes showed NASCAR's commitment to safety.
"Nothing we can do can bring back those that we've lost as part of our sport,"
Helton said. "We can, however, learn from those losses and honor them in what
we do moving forward."
Since Earnhardt's death, NASCAR drivers have increased their use of
head-and-neck restraints (Earnhardt was not wearing one when he died).
At Sunday's Pepsi 400 Winston Cup race in Brooklyn, Mich., Earnhardt's son,
Dale Earnhardt Jr., wore a head-and-neck restraint for the first time after
had resisted wearing the device because he said it was uncomfortable.
"It's something my fellow drivers asked me to wear," Earnhardt Jr. said
after finishing 12th Sunday. "And I think when guys like that speak up, it's
something you ought to take notice to."
Earnhardt Jr. wore the "Hutchens device," the head-and-neck restraint
designed by Bobby Hutchens, an engineer at Richard Childress Racing, the former
team of the elder Earnhardt.
It's one of two head-and-neck restraint systems being used by NASCAR
drivers, the other being the HANS (Head and Neck Support) device, which is worn
by Winston Cup points leader Jeff Gordon.
The HANS has a large neck brace; the Hutchens relies more on straps on
different parts of the body. Only two of the 43 drivers at the Pepsi 400 did
not wear head-and-neck restraint devices (Tony Stewart and Jimmy Spencer).
NASCAR has stopped short of mandating restraints.
"Right now we don't feel comfortable in mandating a head-and-neck restraint
system," George Pyne, senior vice president of NASCAR, said. "Each guy has
strong opinions about the way he straps in. One driver is 6-foot-5, one is
5-foot-5. The guy that goes in the cockpit has to make that decision."
A look at NASCAR's six-month study into the Feb. 18 fatal crash of seven-time
Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt at the Daytona 500:
Cause of Death
A broken seat belt, the collision with Ken Schrader's car and smashing into the
outside wall at 157-160 mph all contributed to Earnhardt's death from basilar
Steps NASCAR Is Taking
Next season, it will install "black boxes" in cars, similar to flight-data
recorders on airplanes, to help understand the impact of crashes and improve
Computer models to design safer cars will be used, along with testing of
improvements for restraint systems and racetrack barriers.
NASCAR plans to open a research center in Conover, N.C., sometime next year.
A full-time medical liaison will come on board in 2002 to coordinate with local
tracks and medical personnel.
What's Not Happening
NASCAR will not require the use of head-and-neck restraints, although it
encourages their use.
The report contains no recommendations on changes to cars or barriers at
COMPILED BY THE ASSOCIATED PRESS