The Dale Earnhardt Crash: Answers Still Hard to Come By

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Dr. Raddin demonstrates the type of blunt trauma Dale Earnhardt suffered

Tuesday afternoon at a hotel in downtown Atlanta, NASCAR officials, stung by criticism of their handling of the investigation into driver Dale Earnhardt’s death six months ago, finally revealed the voluminous results of a $1 million probe into the fatal Daytona 500 crash.

Their conclusion: The racing legend was the victim of a disastrous chain of events. He hit the wall at 160 mph, just milliseconds after his car was hit broadside — and to top it all off, his seatbelt ripped apart during the crash. Those events conspired to fling the unprotected back of Earnhardt’s head against the steering wheel, the support behind his seat or both.

"These factors operating together resulted in head impact," wrote crash injury experts James Raddin and James Benedict in NASCAR's two-volume, two-inch-thick report. "None of these factors alone can be conclusively isolated as the cause" of Earnhardt’s death.

NASCAR’s slick, two-hour press conference provided a microsecond-by-microsecond dissection of the crash, but did little to quell persistent questions and criticism. The report failed, for example, to determine exactly why Earnhardt’s left lap belt "dumped," bunching in a twisted tension adjuster, causing it to rip like cheap T-shirt.

Seat belt designer Joe Simpson, who resigned from Simpson Performance Products after Earnhardt’s crash, held his own press conference after NASCAR’s, blaming the driver’s crew for improperly installing the belt. Safety expert Raddin shrugged off that allegation, noting that the belt could not have been installed differently and still fit the seat.

This new report did not reconcile with an earlier study that concluded Earnhardt’s fatal skull fracture came when he hit his chin, nor did it determine whether a head-and-neck restraint would have saved him.

NASCAR President Mike Helton said that NASCAR was more interested in improving safety in the future than in assessing blame for Earnhardt‚s death. Some of the new safety measures planned include:

  • A full-time medical director who will act as a liaison with local doctors. Currently, NASCAR relies on each racetrack to provide its own physician

  • A research and development center, to open next year, which will focus on safety and cost management issues

  • A new study of safety restraints from the experts who looked into Earnhardt’s crash

  • Placing "black box" crash data recorders in cars. Although Formula One and Indy cars are already outfitted with the technology, NASCAR had banned the boxes for fear crews would use the telemetry data to increase speed during races

    NASCAR president Helton insists his association has recruited more (and more qualified) people to catch black box cheaters. Helton hopes recent advances will mean crews never handle the boxes at all — and are never tempted to use the data to enhance a car’s performance.