Archive for Thursday, August 23, 2001

NASCAR’s probe leaves questions

Investigation into Earnhardt crash reveals scapegoat but doesn’t really solve anything

August 23, 2001


Dale Earnhardt's No. 3 car hits the wall after colliding with Ken Schrader's No. 36 on the last lap at the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18.

NASCAR got what it wanted an independently determined scapegoat.

Dale Earnhardt's death on the final lap of the Daytona 500 six months ago demands justice in the eyes of his passionate fans. A fatal accident notwithstanding, they believe their hero was wrongly taken from them and they want somebody's head on a stick.

NASCAR's extensive outside-orchestrated investigation gave them seat belt manufacturer Bill Simpson. It certainly beats the alternative, which might have pointed the finger at The Intimidator himself.

NASCAR's presentation of its investigation results Tuesday afternoon listed the separation of Earnhardt's restraint system as the probable trigger to a sequence of occurrences that led to the blunt-force head trauma that killed Earnhardt just seconds before his son, Dale Jr., crossed the finish line for second place.

NASCAR president Mike Helton contended that the purpose of the investigation wasn't assessing blame but finding answers. Neither he or the primary investigators the racing body retained directly implicated Simpson, but the overriding tone of the findings was pretty clear: Had Earnhardt's left lap belt not severed upon impact, he might have survived the crash.

Helton believes there's no room for further discussion. Nobody can question the credibility of the inquiry. NASCAR, a multi-billion dollar, family-run monolith, went outside of the inner circle for this investigation, retaining a nationally prominent biophysicist and an engineer.

But the investigation produced as many questions as answers.

Why didn't NASCAR mention that the seat belt wasn't defective, or the possibility of improper installation?

"I don't think NASCAR is trying to blame anyone like they said," said Simpson Performance Products attorney James Voyles, "but I also don't think they went far enough in this investigation, particularly in the area of the restraint system installed by manufacturer's specifications. Separation was the result of the installation, not the quality of the system."

If installation was the primary culprit, then isn't Earnhardt culpable for any diminished protection?

The most important question from the last six months remained unanswered. Is the standard frontal chassis design unsafe due to its inability to dissipate the high forces at impact?

Although NASCAR's inquest focused exclusively on the Earnhardt crash, it was initially perceived as an examination into the causes of four NASCAR fatalities within an eight-month span.

But it seems NASCAR wants nobody fixating on anything beyond the seat restraint.

Forty-one of the 43 drivers in last week's MIS race wore the HANS restraint system. But the most important safety upgrade should involve the design of the car. But that would require NASCAR to look more seriously at itself. And that remains a course it would rather not take.

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