The most exhaustive investigation in NASCAR history reached its official conclusion in August, with independent crash experts confirming that trauma to the head killed racing legend Dale Earnhardt in a last-lap crash at the Feb. 18 Daytona 500, and that his safety belt tore during impact with the wall. The findings were revealed during a press conference in Atlanta.
Dr. James H. Raddin of the Biodynamic Research Corporation discussed the injury causation analysis, while Dr. Dean Sicking, a leading authority on barrier and crash safety, recreated the crash itself. Raddin stressed that several factors combined to result in a fatal ring fracture of Earnhardt’s skull, and that the Simpson safety belt was not cut but torn on impact, possibly due to an alteration in its installation.
“When something like this happens, you always want to point to one thing and say, ‘That’s it,'” said Raddin, who has an extensive background in biomedical research. “But there are several factors involved here. It started with a severe collision with the wall at a critical angle, and Dale Earnhardt was also repositioned during the car-to-car collision with the 36 [Ken Schrader] car.
“The displacement of his helmet was a result of all the factors, and the seat belt separated during the collision, which caused more forward movement of the body. All these things combined to cause the head trauma, and we can’t single one out as being the definitive cause.”
Sicking, a University of Nebraska professor who has patented 16 roadside safety features, recreated the crash and explained various computer models used to describe the fatal collision. It was concluded that the crash itself lasted eight-hundredths of a second, and that the speed at impact was between 156 and 161 mph. Earnhardt’s car hit at a 12- to 15-degree trajectory.
Velocity, trajectory angle and heading angle contribute to the severity of a crash, and Earnhardt’s accident saw no displacement of energy. The car suffered a change of velocity of more than 40 mph in less than a second.
“That trajectory suggests this was a severe hit,” Sicking said. “In a typical barrier impact the car will redirect in this situation, but in this case the vehicle maintained the same angle, which is a worst-case scenario.”
Earnhardt, arguably the greatest NASCAR driver in history with 76 checkered flags and seven series titles, lost his life while blocking out for Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Members of the Dale Earnhardt Incorporated team, Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. were running one-two on the final lap when Earnhardt found himself in three-wide traffic. His car shot down to the apron, then moved up the banking, where it struck the wall and was hit by Schrader’s car.
“There was no time for [Schrader] to react,” Sicking said. “Both cars hit the wall, but they hit at much different angles. Earnhardt’s barrier impact came just four-tenths of a second after his collision with the other car.”
The presentation was a graphic one, with Raddin displaying photos of the car following the crash. Blood could be seen on the safety belt and the steering wheel, and Raddin described each injury Earnhardt sustained. The autopsy revealed that Earnhardt had a contusion on the lower back portion of the head – indicating blunt trauma – and there were also scattered hemorrhages. Earnhardt suffered a fracture to the base of the skull, abrasions on the right side of the chin, a torso abrasion near the left collarbone, multiple rib fractures all on the right side, and a fracture of the sternum, as well as a left ankle sprain.
“There were several factors involved,” Raddin said. “When a vehicle changes motion suddenly, it produces stresses on the human body. If they exceed human tolerance, you get an injury. He also made significant impact with the steering wheel. Looking at the wheel you can see that it’s deformed because of the impact, and there are also scuff marks evident. Part of the seat surface was even melted due to the motion of the occupant.”
Raddin described the crash as similar to a situation in which a car traveling between 75 and 80 mph hits a parked car at an angle.
“Even the more advanced features of a Winston Cup car can’t prevent everything,” Raddin said. “What we hope to do is find a way to make the cars even more safe.”
New safety measures
NASCAR President Mike Helton immediately pointed out several safety measures the sanctioning body will take. These include computer models to help design safer cars; “black boxes” placed in vehicles; studies on new and improved restraint systems; encouraging drivers to use the head and neck restraint systems already available; and a full-time medical liaison to work with doctors at individual tracks.
“Nothing we can do will bring back those we’ve lost in this sport,” Helton said. “One of the reasons Bill France created NASCAR was to improve safety for drivers and fans, and over the years you can see the evolution of safety features from fuel cells and roof flaps, for example, to improved roll cages.
“The week after the Daytona 500 we informed drivers that we were going to create a body that would improve NASCAR, and we’ve already learned a great deal from Dr. Raddin and Dr. Sicking.”
During the latter part of the 2001 season, practically all Winston Cup competitors used either a HANS or Hutchins safety device, and Helton plans to encourage their use in 2002 – although they are not mandatory.
“Our goal is to help all drivers find a restraint system they can be comfortable with,” Helton said. “We also want to develop a better belt system. We will continue to aggressively pursue any legitimate safety feature, and while we may have fallen short in our communication, we have been responsible in our approach to safety. Any single death is one too many.”
NASCAR came under fire from some critics who accused the organization of being secretive in its investigation. Some even suggested safety issues were not given top priority.
Raddin, who will work with NASCAR on new safety features, said improvements can be made but must be well thought out prior to implementation.
“We have to be cautious in the way we approach this,” he said. “History is replete with examples of radical changes that are made without considering the unintended consequences. We want to develop better control of occupant displacement and learn how to prevent seat belt tears, but we have to do it the proper way.”
Sterling Marlin is among the drivers testing superspeedway rule changes.
Nineteen race teams converged on Talladega Superspeedway in September for closed testing, and after several mini-races and more than a little tinkering with their machines, it’s apparent NASCAR is considering more rule changes for the series’ four superspeedway events.
“Basically we’re just here to try to help NASCAR out,” said Sterling Marlin, who led Dodge to its first victory since returning to Winston Cup racing when he took the checker at Michigan Aug. 19. “I think some of the things we did were a little better than what they were, but now you have to be more precise with your passing. We’ve got to get the cars fast enough to where you can separate the fast ones from the slow ones.”
During last April’s Talladega 500, drivers enjoyed a caution-free race – although the restrictor plate showdown kept the field bunched up from start to finish. While the same rules could be in place for October’s EA Sports 500, teams experimented with alterations.
During the April race, cars were equipped with 70-degree spoilers, 15/16-inch plates and roof blades that were 1 3/8 inches. On the morning of the September test, teams had 60-degree spoilers, no roof blades and a 29/32-inch plate. By the afternoon, the plate was back to 7/8-inch.
“My only concern came when we put a 7/8-inch plate on it,” said Talladega 500 champion Bobby Hamilton, a Chevrolet driver. “It made it a lot rougher to keep up in the draft. Some guys get a little impatient if they lose the draft, and these rules are designed to break a big pack up.
“Right now we’re all playing a guessing game.”
The testing was extensive, with every manufacturer represented and all but two of the teams using their regular drivers. The media was not allowed to enter the garage area or observe the mini-races, but the pilots said they learned a few things from the practice laps.
“We used different configurations on different runs, and it was good to be able to try some different things out,” Ford driver Ricky Rudd said. “On the first run it seemed like it was better in the sense the racing was closer, but if you weren’t paying attention you could lose the draft. Basically, we’ll get driver comments, report back to NASCAR and they’ll take it from there.”
Also on hand for the tests was Ray Evernham, who is handling the Dodge effort for Winston Cup. “We’re trying cars without the roof blades, using a different spoiler and trying to gather information,” Evernham said. “In fairness to NASCAR, they’re trying to look at things to make a better race, but sometimes you can’t guarantee a home run every time.
“Some Super Bowls aren’t good and some races aren’t good. The race we had here last time was caution-free, and it was a pretty good show. We just have to see.”
Since Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash in the season-opening Daytona 500, NASCAR has taken a closer look at the safety of races, especially those on the superspeedways. If rule changes come from the Talladega test, they could possibly come into play in the 2002 Daytona 500.
“NASCAR is working hard to satisfy us as drivers and make the races as safe as possible,” Hamilton said. “The thing is, you have to do something to make it safe for the drivers and the fans. You can’t have a car get up to 200 mph or you might get up in the grandstands. That’s what we’re working on.”
As for Marlin, an outspoken critic of restrictor-plate racing, he wants rules that will allow the better cars to show their stuff.
“You can’t ask owners to build special cars for Talladega and Daytona,” he said. “I don’t know if there’ll be modifications by the time we come back to Talladega or what, but I hope they come up with something.
“With the plate races now, if you get hung in the back you can’t go anywhere, and I’d like to see them figure out a way to change that.”
Meet the Drivers
Hometown: Grand Rapids, Mich.
Benson, one of the rising stars on the Winston Cup circuit, drives the Valvoline Pontiac owned by Nelson Bowers.
Benson was the 1990 ASA Rookie of the Year, and won the series title 3 years later. Benson also was named the Busch Series Rookie of the Year in 1994 and a year later won the Busch championship. Benson says if he wasn’t racing he’d be building race cars for his father.