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NASCAR needs to do much more

Roger Diez

Obviously, there were many forces and factors involved in the accident, but there is a basic difference in the report of independent biomedical expert Dr. Barry Myers (released several months ago) and that of NASCAR’s tame investigators. Myers found that death was caused by a basilar skull fracture caused by hyperextension of the head and neck at the moment of impact.

Subsequent to that, according to Myers, the seat belt broke and Earnhardt’s jaw and upper body made contact with the steering wheel, possibly partially as a result of a broken left seat belt. The NASCAR experts, on the other hand, concluded that the basilar skull fracture was a result of blunt force to the head (contact with the steering wheel). This, of course, brings the

broken seat belt into prominence. That seat belt has been the red herring that NASCAR has repeatedly dragged across the trail of evidence for the last six months.

Simpson Performance Products, the manufacturer of Earnhardt’s safety harness, promptly issued a statement, saying in part … “We are dismayed and disappointed that NASCAR’s report leaves open the question of whether the belt separation caused Dale Earnhardt’s injuries, but failed to mention that the installation did not conform to the manufacturer’s specifications … The shadow that continues to be cast over the integrity of the safety restraint system is in direct contradiction to reports prepared by independent experts we retained.”

There is a raft of detail on the mechanism of the seat belt failure, indeed the whole investigation, available on the Internet, and I don’t have the space to go into it here. However, it is pretty clear that it was the mounting system, rather than the harness itself, that caused the failure.

Company founder Bill Simpson, who has probably done more for racing safety than any one person in the history of the sport, resigned last month, saying he was tired of implications the company’s products were somehow at fault.

Once NASCAR had set the stage, President Mike Helton outlined several steps NASCAR would take to improve safety within the organization.

First, a director of safety research (as yet unnamed) would be appointed to NASCAR’s research and development center. Second, NASCAR will continue to “recommend” the use of head and neck restraint systems, which have been almost universally adopted by Winston Cup drivers. Third, NASCAR will work with safety equipment manufacturers over the problem

of “dumping,” which reportedly caused Earnhardt’s lap belt to fail at the adjuster, and to improve the belt system and its attachments. Fourth, NASCAR will require the use of crash data recorders (black boxes) in the cars next year.

Finally, NASCAR will hire a “qualified person” (note: not necessarily a doctor) to act as liaison with local doctors under NASCAR’s current medical response system at its tracks, and will seek to retain a person to oversee future accident investigations.

Personally, I have a problem with the reaction. First, why did NASCAR virtually ignore three fatal accidents with the same mechanism of injury, only reacting (and taking six months to do it) after its biggest star was killed? Secondly, why does NASCAR continue to shy away from mandating things like the HANS device or similar systems? It had no trouble mandating window nets after a severe Richard Petty accident 30 years ago. It had no trouble mandating a specific chassis/roll cage structure, even though it forces bodywork into shapes that are far removed from automakers’ factory dimensions.

My feeling is that NASCAR is afraid that if it mandates a restraint device, and someone dies anyway, it will be held legally liable. And when attorneys and bean counters start setting safety policy, the sport is in serious trouble.

As for data recorders, other racing series have been using them for years, and use crash data to continually improve driver survivability in a variety of accident scenarios. Why has NASCAR resisted this until now?

The points system is also a culprit. When points are awarded down to last position, there is motivation to build cars that can “take a licking and keep on ticking,” rather than the energy-dissipating design of CART, IRL, Formula One, and Sports Prototype cars. If points were only paid halfway through the field, more attention could be paid to crush space, destroying the car but directing energy away from the driver “cocoon.”

The bottom line? Although NASCAR has reluctantly taken some steps to prevent a recurrence of the Earnhardt tragedy, much more needs to be done. A critical and fundamental examination of the cars, the points system, race formats and things like restrictor plates must take place. But as long as NASCAR is riding the wave of popularity it has enjoyed for the last several years, nothing is likely to happen.

Or to quote Speedvision/Racer writer Ben Blake, “As long as cynical TV executives and a million starry-eyed goobers buy the program, who am I to be critical?”