It was ten years ago this weekend that NASCAR lost perhaps its greatest driver ever. On a warm February day back in 2001, NASCAR came together to run the Daytona 500. The race was full of passing, and one dramatic crash that left Tony Stewart’s car upside down. All this did though was set the stage for what looked to be a tremendous fight to the last lap finish. As the revving engines took the white flag to signify the final lap of the race, Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr were neck and neck around each turn.
Lurking just behind them was Dale Earnhardt, the man in black, doing his best to shield other cars from passing him, preserving the chances that one of his DEI entries would take the checkered flag. After all, he had won this race not two years earlier, so who knew the feeling. They made their way to turn 3 and the end of the race, with little E and Waltrip now secured into finishing first and second. All seemed perfect except an accident had occurred on the final turn.
In the blink of an eye, Dale Earnhardt Sr was gone. His car had taken a turn towards the wall and with surgical precision hit it at high speed. Earnhardt had been killed instantly, though he would not be pronounced dead for some 30 or so minutes later at the local hospital. It had seemed like a bad crash, but not one that would have on the surface looked to be life threatening. Yet there was Mike Helton at a Daytona area hospital announcing that Dale Earnhardt had been lost. So what is it that happened to cause this NASCAR great to perish in this crash. Let us take a look now at the circumstances and see.
First off misinformation has to be discounted, as there was much speculation after the race about the role of Sterling Marlin in the death. Television replays at the time had many distraught fans feeling as though it was a tap from Marlin’s front bumper that caused Earnhardt’s car to go out of control and veer into the wall. Through reconstruction and investigation, it was shown that it was not his fault and this was bore out by Earnhardt’s own son who declared that fans should leave Marlin alone as he was not the cause of the death of his father. Marlin received death threats and plenty of hate mail after the incident.
There was also great speculation at the time of and shortly after the accident that the cause of Earnhardt’s death was due to the failure of his left lap safety belt. This was the initial cause that was bantied about by NASCAR officials in hopes that it might quickly quell all the stories that were surrounding the incident and let them get back to racing. Unfortunately that did not work. The first medical responders on the scene indicated that the belts were off center by a number of inches but certainly not broken.
There was also disdain on the part of Bill Simpson whose company produced all the safety belts for the cars. He indicated that there was no belt failure, but rather the problem lied in the fact that the belt was installed incorrectly, so as to provide Earnhardt with a little more comfort. It became clear that an impartial party would need to come in and examine the evidence, especially given the Orlando Sentinel’s insistence on wanting to see autopsy results. Enter Dr Barry Myers.
Dr Myers is an expert in the field of accidents and causes of death in accidents. After he did his examination of all the evidence, including autopsy data, he concluded that NASCAR was incorrect and the cause of death had actually been the result of inadequate restraint of his head and neck which caused those to areas to snap forward on impact and kill him instantly. His findings were agreed upon as well by at least three other experts in the area of accident reconstruction and injury.
NASCAR came out a few days later with their own report which blamed a myriad of circumstances including contact with Ken Schrader’s car before impact, the angle that he went into the wall at high speed, and the separation of Earnhardt’s seat belt.
Were there other areas to be blamed? It has been expounded that the changes that NASCAR employed late in the 2000 season to the springs and shocks, along with carburetor restrictions could be seen as a contributing factor. This was thought because Earnhardt himself has complained about how the changes ruined racing and so in response NASCAR developed a new aerodynamics package that they hoped would make racing better by keeping the cars bunched together. We will never know if that was the case, but all those cars together at the end could be something to think about.
In the end, his death has had a profound effect on the sport and the safety of its drivers. NASCAR and the race world had experienced deaths throughout the years, but it had never lost someone the stature of Earnhardt. The cause of his death made NASCAR put safety of its drivers at the forefront and led to some sweeping changes that have made NASCAR a much safer sport.
Shortly after, the HANS device was created. The HANS device is a head and neck restraint attached to the car and seat if you will that prevents the head and neck from snapping forward in a crash. There have certainly been just as many nasty wrecks after his death, but the restraint package has prevented any other deaths from occuring in the same manner.
Also important was the installation of SAFER barriers at all of the race tracks on the circuit. Now instead of crashing head on into unforgiving concrete, the drivers are crashing into softer walls which are primarily foam based and provide give when hitting the wall. New six point restraint harnesses also were employed to belt the drivers in, and after years of design, the “Car of Tomorrow” was created by NASCAR with the pop up flaps which were meant to keep out of control cars from going airborne and causing even more harm.
It is sad that it took the death of such a great driver like Dale Earnhardt to bring these things to the forefront of the thinking of NASCAR, but it is great that those who have come after this great man are that much more safer in their rides, thanks to the sacrifices of this NASCAR legend.