Archive for Thursday, August 23, 2001

The Earnhardt report

That’s Racin’ answers fans’ lingering questions

August 23, 2001


After Tuesday's news conference announcing the findings of NASCAR's investigation into Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash, reporters were given copies of the full two-volume report. Here are some questions that may be lingering in the minds of fans, and the answers that can be found in the report's introduction and summary of conclusions:

Q: We've heard all along that Earnhardt's fatal injury was a basilar skull fracture, but what does the report say caused that?

A: The report concludes that Earnhardt "most likely" died from a blow to the lower back left side of his head, which caused a ringfracture to the base of his skull. It says the blow "most likely" occurred as a result of contact between the lower left side of Earnhardt's head and the right side of his steering wheel or between that part of his head and the structure of the car to the left and behind the driver's seat.

Q: What is the evidence that a blow to the head caused the skull fracture?

A: The autopsy report includes evidence of an 8 centimeter by 5.5 centimeter bruise about the size of a credit card on Earnhardt's scalp on the lower left side of the back of his head. That area of his head was exposed, the crash investigation report says, when Earnhardt's helmet rotated forward while on the driver's head.

Q: Wasn't it reported earlier that a violent forward head whip caused Earnhardt's basilar skull fracture?

A: Yes, that has been reported. The report issued Tuesday said that while it is still possible that neck tension and torsion the head whip contributed to the fracture, but "it is not likely that head whip alone caused the fracture." The report says that there is no evidence of injuries to the neck bones, ligaments or muscles that would be associated with basilar skull fractures caused by head whip.

Q: There was a mark on the right side of Earnhardt's chin that, it was suggested, might have been caused when his chin hit his steering wheel. What does the report say about that?

A: The report says that the left side of Earnhardt's head was the "leading" side during the crash, making it "unlikely" there was a significant impact by the right chin on the steering wheel. Rather, the report says, the superficial abrasion on Earnhardt's chin is "most likely" due to contact with the chin strap on his helmet as the helmet rotated on his head.

Q: Did the seat belt break?

A: Yes, the report says emphatically. The report says the left lap belt separated during the car's impact with the concrete wall, although the precise point at which that happened cannot be determined.

Q: Why did the belt break?

A: The report says a condition called dumping is the "most likely" cause. Dumping of a belt occurs when the belt webbing is pulled or moved significantly to one side of the adjuster through which the belt travels. When such a dumped belt is put under stress, as it would be in a crash, the load of that crash is distributed unevenly to a small group of fibers on one side of the webbing. If the load is great enough, the belt can separate on that side and tear across the entire width of the belt.

Q: So what caused the dumping?

A: The report says that can't be determined because of the complex nature of the crash stemming from two impacts with Ken Schrader's car and the wall just four-tenths of a second apart.

Q: So the report blames Earnhardt's death on the separated seat belt?

A: No. Specifically, in fact, it says "the seat belt separation cannot be isolated as the sole cause of Dale Earnhardt's death."

Q: Is it possible that NASCAR planted a separated belt in the car to provide a scapegoat-type explanation for the death?

A: NASCAR hired the law firm of Baker Botts to investigate the separation issue. The law firm, in turn, hired IPSA International, a private investigations firm, to assist it. Baker Botts and IPSA did more than 70 interviews, collected photographs of the car and the belt, and did DNA analysis and microscopic fiber analysis on the belt. The conclusion, the report says, is that "There was no opportunity for NASCAR or any other third party to fabricate a separated-belt scenario."

Q: What about Tommy Propst, the emergency medical technician who said the belt was intact when he came to Earnhardt's aid? Is NASCAR saying that he lied?

A: No, but NASCAR has always said that it believes Propst was mistaken.

Q: What does the report say about the sequence of events in the crash?

A: When Earnhardt's car came into Turn 4, it made contact with Sterling Marlin's Dodge. Earnhardt's car started toward the track apron, but Earnhardt steered it back onto the track. As he came onto the banking he came into the path of Schrader's car. With less than three-tenths of a second to react, there was nothing Schrader could have done to avoid a collision. That collision did two things that increased the risk of serious injury for Earnhardt. First, it increased what is called the "heading angle" into the wall of Earnhardt's car to approximately 55 to 59 degrees. If that angle is shallower, the car will hit the wall twice by rotating counterclockwise the front end would hit and then the car would deflect and the right rear end would hit the wall. If the angle is deeper, the car would then also hit twice, rotating clockwise so the second hit would come to the left side of the car as it spun around. In either of those cases, the energy and forces absorbed in the car and therefore by the person who's in it would be more spread out over time. In the Earnhardt crash, however, the 55 to 59 degree angle did not permit the car to rotate. As a result, all of the energy and load forces came on the initial impact with the wall, which lasted 0.080 second.

Q: What forces happened when it hit the wall?

A: The velocity change was approximately 42 to 44 mph, the report says. Compare that to the 9 to 11 mph change from Schrader's impact. The experts say that a 42 to 44 mph velocity change is equivalent to having a parked car hit at a critical angle by a car of similar size and weight traveling 75 to 80 mph.

Q: Didn't Dr. Barry Myers from Duke University have very different opinions in his report issued on April 10?

A: Yes, and footnotes in the report address that issue. "It should be noted that Drs. (James) Benedict and (James) Raddin developed or had access to much information during the course of their investigation that was not available to Dr. Myers at the time of his report. Any difference of opinions may derive from the differences in the data upon which the two analyses were based." Myers' report said that Earnhardt's head moved forward and to the right with significant force and that his chin hit the steering wheel. Myers did not, the report says, do a physical review of the interior of the car or have the accident reconstruction analysis done by the Nebraska Team. He also was not aware of the 42 to 44 mph velocity change, the report says. All of that "provides a readily apparent basis for such a blow to the head. Hence, his (Dr. Myers') conclusion as to the relative likelihood of the potential injury mechanisms is understandable."

Q: Did these experts look at the autopsy photos that Earnhardt's widow fought to have sealed?

A: No, they did not.

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