Questions Remain After NASCAR Report

SpeedReading

By DAVE MOODY

Barre/Montpelier (VT) Times-Argus

 

NASCAR’s investigation into the death of Dale Earnhardt is finally over. An hour-long news conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Atlanta Tuesday released the findings of the long-awaited inquiry, and while the investigation - at a cost of more than $1 million - is the most comprehensive independent inquiry in the 52-year history of NASCAR, it did not provide the concrete answers many were hoping for

Investigators Dr. Dean Sicking and Dr. James H. Raddin examined every bit of evidence available from the crash -- with the exception of Earnhardt’s autopsy photos, which remain sealed under Florida law - during the course of the six-month investigation, including skid marks, seven different videotape angles of the crash, and Earnhardt’s demolished car. They also prepared a computer model to accurately reproduce the fatal crash.

Their investigation revealed that Earnhardt's death was not the result of a single cause, but rather, several factors combined.

"These (factors) included the uncommon severity and trajectory of the car's impact with the wall, an immediate prior collision with the #36 car that put (his body) out of position, and a separation of the left lap belt under load that allowed greater motion within the car," said Raddin. “The No. 3 car hit the wall at a critical angle, thereby highly concentrating the velocity into the wall and creating a worst-case scenario."

Raddin said that at the time of impact, Earnhardt was traveling at approximately 157-160 mph. Contact with the wall caused a rapid (80 millisecond, approximately twice the time it takes to blink) 42-44 mph deceleration; the rough equivalent of a driver sitting parked in a passenger car being hit by another vehicle traveling at 75-80 mph.

One of Raddin’s main findings is that the webbing in Earnhardt’s left lap belt tore under load, while the buckle itself remained latched. The resulting lack of restraint caused Earnhardt's body to move forward and to the right; first when hit by the car of Ken Schrader, and again upon impact with the wall. The study determined that Earnhardt’s open-face helmet likely slid forward, combining with the right-hand rotation of his head to expose the occipital (back) portion of his head to impact. That impact -- either with the steering wheel at the time of contact with the wall, or with the seat back or other object during rebound - caused blunt-force trauma to the head, and lead to a so-called “ring fracture” at the base of his skull. That fracture ultimately caused Earnhardt’s death.

Raddin said the torn lap belt likely played a role in the seven-time Winston Cup champion's death, but was not completely responsible.

"The seatbelt separation cannot be isolated as the sole cause of Dale Earnhardt's death,” he said. “While the separation of the lap belt increased the potential for serious injury, the precise timing of the separation during the impact is unknown. (Thus), it is impossible to determine with certainty whether Dale Earnhardt would or would not have survived if the lap belt had remained intact."

Raddin stressed, however, that Earnhardt’s belt was not cut by rescue workers following the crash, as has been alleged.

"The physical evidence is clear,” he said, citing DNA (blood splatter) evidence, fiber analysis, and other factors. “This was not a cutting of a belt afterward. This was a belt that separated under load.'' He attributed that separation to a phenomenon called "dumping;” whereby the webbing twists to one side of the metal adjustment device under load, causing the fabric to tear.

The investigation also revealed the full extent of Earnhardt’s injuries for the first time. They included eight broken ribs (all on the left side of his body), a broken sternum, a broken and dislocated left ankle, a broken left clavicle, and several abrasions.

Raddin said it is unlikely that Earnhardt's basilar skull fracture was caused by “head whip,” or an impact to the chin, as had been suggested previously.

Bill Simpson, founder of Simpson Racing Products (manufacturers of Earnhardt’s seatbelts) said Wednesday that he was disappointed in the report, which he claimed did not cite "improper installation" of the restraint system and "unfavorable geometry." Simpson said the rear anchor points on Earnhardt’s lap belts were improper, and led directly to the failure of the belt.

“When properly installed, our belts do not fail,” he said. “(But) if they say the belts were not
installed correctly, then that points the finger at Richard Childress Racing, and they don't want to do that."

For its part, NASCAR outlined a series of changes designed to improve driver safety.

"Even in a sport where danger is inherent, any single death is one too many," said NASCAR President Mike Helton. He announced that the sanctioning body will commission an additional study on driver restraint systems - seat belts, head and neck restraints, etc. -- and also take a close look at seat-belt strength. They will not, however, mandate the use of head-and-neck restraints at this time, and no immediate changes in chassis or car construction will be instituted.

"There are still some things we need to understand completely," Helton said. "Mandating (the HANS device) completely at this point is not a wise thing to do, based on production schedules of the parts and pieces themselves, and the understanding of the entirety of their uses."

Helton said that “black box" crash data recording systems will be mandated in all NASCAR race cars beginning in 2002, and a full-time NASCAR medical liason will be hired to work with local medical teams, beginning at Speedweeks 2002.

While NASCAR’s study failed to provide a concrete answer to the question, “what killed Dale Earnhardt,” it does provide a valuable and long-overdue look at the dynamics of high-speed racing crashes. The findings of Drs. Raddin and Sicking likely provide little comfort to the Earnhardt family - or the families of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, and Tony Roper, for that matter - but they may prevent the NASCAR family from having to experience the trauma of losing one of its own again anytime soon.

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In racing, one of the keys to winning a championship is avoiding “the big crash;” that seemingly inevitable, once-a-year wallbanger that every driver suffers over the course of a season. The crash leaves drivers bruised and sore, racecars battered and bent, and can suck the life out of a seasonlong title chase.

Shelburne’s Jamie Fisher rode out his “big crash” last week, and it didn’t cost him a single point.

Fisher traveled to the new Adirondack International Speedway in Lowville, NY, last week for a scheduled ACT testing session on the new Empire State oval. By all reports, everything went well, at least until the ride home. Not far from the speedway, with Fisher at the wheel of his team’s transport vehicle, a driver traveling in the opposite direction lost control while cresting a hill. His truck, with a trailer towing an antique tractor attached, began fishtailing on the two-lane highway, eventually overturning right in Fisher’s path.

“Basically, I had two choices; slam into the guy head-on, or hitch the ditch,” said Fisher. He swerved to avoid the oncoming vehicle, sailed off the road, and someone managed to avoid both a telephone pole and a tree, coming to a stop with his vehicle wedged between the two.

The impact of the crash destroyed Fisher’s truck - new at the beginning of the season - and damaged both his trailer and the enclosed racecar. A spare racing engine stored inside the trailer spilled out onto the ground, but amazingly, Fisher, his two passengers, and the other driver were uninjured.

“I told they guy he was pretty lucky,” said Fisher last week. “We were pulling up a pretty long hill, so we were only going about 40-45 mph at the time. Two minutes later, it would have been downhill, and things could have turned out a lot worse.”

The other driver was cited for his part in the incident.

Thursday night, with his “big crash” presumably behind him, Fisher continued his torrid, late-season run for the Thunder Road Late Model title. He stormed from deep in the field to finish a close second behind winner Jay Laquerre; his third straight runner-up finish on the Barre highbanks. With point leader Cris Michaud struggling to a 16th-place showing, and number-two point man Joey Laquerre also off his normal pace, Fisher closed to within 11 points of the catbird seat with just three point-counting races to go. Laquerre dropped to third, 21 points back.

Virtually no one expects the 2001 “King of the Road” title to be decided before the final checkered flag is thrown. But with every passing week, Fisher looks like more of a threat to win it all.

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Short (Track) Subjects…

 

…Six NASCAR Busch North Series teams took advantage of last Thursday’s test session at Thunder Road, hoping to find the hot set-up for the September 1st “True Value 150.” Thunder Road grads Brian Hoar and Dennis Demers were joined by former BNS champions Kelly Moore and Brad Leighton, 2000 Rookie of the Year Mike Johnson, and Bryan Wall.

 

“The winner of the race will be one of the guys who's here testing today," predicted Demers, while Hoar discussed the differences between an ACT Late Model and his Busch North mount. "The Late Models are lighter, lower to the ground and they bite so much better," said the five-time ACT champion. "The Busch cars are taller, heavier, and they have more horsepower. You've really got to use the whole track to get them around the corners, and if there's someone next to you, you both lose out."

Hoar predicted it will be difficult to run two-abreast at Thunder Road the way he’s become accustomed to in the past, especially after crashing his top short-track car last month at Stafford and having to resort to a backup piece.

"She's a heavy girl," said Hoar to BNSracing.com. "It was a Busch south car that we haven't done anything to (lighten), except to take out the roof flaps."

…Last week, rumors circulated that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation was set to purchase New Hampshire International Speedway from the Bahre family, with plans to move one of New Hampshire’s Winston Cup races to either Indy or Chicagoland Speedway. That would leave the September “New Hampshire 300” as the lone Cup race on the NHIS calendar.

Spokesmen for NHIS have vehemently denied the stories, however. "I spoke to Bob Bahre this morning, and he said that's the first he's heard of it," said Fred Neergaard, Director of Public Relations for NHIS last Wednesday. "He said it is 100-percent false."

Bahre went even further, saying, “don’t bet the farm on it. I’d hate to see you lose the farm.”

 

…The much-discussed Cingular Wireless sponsorship will reside with Richard Childress Racing next season, after the two parties signed a four-year contract last week. The announcement signals the exit of current RCR sponsor Lowe’s Home Improvement Centers, which, as we reported here a week ago, will end up on a new Hendrick Motorsports entry with rookie driver Jimmie Johnson.

Current RCR driver Mike Skinner, meanwhile, said he has been given permission by Childress to look around for a new job in 2002. Skinner’s recent replacement driver, Robby Gordon, has reportedly signed a 3-year deal with RCR to drive the #31 Cingular Wireless Chevrolet.

In a related story, Childress has signed brothers Johnny and Jay Sauter to steer his two NASCAR Busch Series entries next season. Johnny, the current American Speed Association point leader, will split time in Childress’ AC Delco-sponsored #2 Chevrolet with current Busch Series point leader Kevin Harvick, while older brother Jay will split the 2002 Busch Series schedule with former Busch champion Jeff Green. Green will also contest the full Winston Cup championship trail next year at the wheel of Childress’ new, AOL-sponsored #30 Chevrolet, while Harvick continues in the Goodwrench #29.

And in a final item from the RCR beat, don’t be surprised to see Earnhardt’s famous #3 Chevrolet back on track next season. Our sources say a different-appearing design of the #3 has been created and approved by Dale Earnhardt Inc., Chevrolet and Richard Childress Racing, with an eye toward returning it to the track in time for the 2002 Daytona 500.

…Tonight at Thunder Road, Routhier Quick Lube and Castrol Motor Oil present the final “Thursday Night Thunder” event of the season beginning at 7 pm, highlighted by the eighth of nine events in the ACT Flying Tiger 50 Series. John Donahue can claim the Series championship with a strong run tonight, as only Joe Steffen - Donahue’s main adversary in the drive for a second consecutive Thunder Road Tiger title - remains within realistic striking distance. Only one point race remains for the Tigers after tonight -- the Parts Plus program on September 9 - since the September 1 True Value 150/Dodge Dealers 100 event is a non-point, invitational event.

Canaan Speedway will be back in action tomorrow night, when the quarter-mile dirt track hosts Eastern Funding Night. The Modifieds, Pro-Street Stocks and Fast Fours will all be in action, with qualifying beginning at 7 p.m.

Saturday night, the ACT Dodge Tour returns to action at the all-new Adirondack Speedway in Lowville, NY. It’s Pat's Auto Sales Night at Groveton, New Hampshire’s Riverside Speedway, with a special event combining the Thunder Road Street Stocks with Riverside’s Cyclone division. The Riverside Strictly Stocks and Sportsmen, and the Senior Tour Auto Racers are also scheduled to compete, show time is 7:05. White Mountain Motorsports Park in North Woodstock, NH, presents is weekly card of racing beginning at 6 p.m., while Bradford’s Bear Ridge Speedway is back in action with Richardson Insurance Agency Night. The Modifieds, Sportsman Coupes, Pro-Street Stocks and Fast Fours are all on the card, along with a 60-lap Enduro. Racing begins at 6:30 p.m.

And finally, Sunday night at 7 p.m., it’s Hobby Stock Havoc at Devil’s Bowl Speedway in West Haven, with a special event for the Hobby Stocks, plus all other regular divisions.