Flat Spot On – The Man, the Crash, the Myths

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, February 13 2021

Dale Earnhardt’s car was accelerated by contact with Schrader’s Pontiac during the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Eanhardt died in the crash. (AP/RJP Books Photo)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Daytona Beach, FL – Here we go again at Daytona. Last year’s 500 ended with a frightening flip by the car of Ryan Newman as he vied for the lead at the checkers. It was an unfortunate end to some excellent competition, but he soon walked away from the hospital hand-in-hand with his daughters.

Despite two major impacts with the wall and being hit by another car, Newman was saved by chassis construction originally developed for the Car of Tomorrow, the SAFER barriers and the HANS Device.

Safety is again in the forefront this year, because it’s the 20th year since seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the 500 in 2001. That crash turned out to be one of the most controversial in NASCAR history for a variety of reasons. Time to sift the facts from the myths.

MYTH: It wasn’t that serious of a crash.

The facts: When Ken Schrader’s Pontiac hit the black Chevy of Earnhardt, it added 9 to 11 mph according to the highly detailed NASCAR investigation, shortly before it hit the wall. In addition, the car was turned from a glancing angle toward a straight-in impact on the right front corner. The impact moved the transmission housing back three inches, indicative of the amount of energy involved.

MYTH: A SAFER barrier might have saved him.

The facts: Each crash has a moment of peak energy transfer. The Delta V measures the change in speed from start to finish during the milliseconds of an impact. If it’s more than 40 mph, the peak energy will be enough to create fatal tension in the neck leading to a basal skull fracture absent a head restraint. That’s true even with a SAFER barrier. The Delta V in the Earnhardt crash was measured at 42 to 44 mph.

An “elongation” of the elapsed time of an impact takes place as a SAFER barrier is crushed, but there’s still a peak moment of energy transfer.

A computer simulation done for NASCAR’s investigation depicts impact at front end. (EPSON MFP image)

MYTH: Weekend warriors enjoyed better safety thanks to the changes implemented by NASCAR, which mandated head restraints for its major traveling series in 2001, and CART, which mandated the HANS for ovals in 2001 and for all races in 2002.

The facts: In the ten years following the Earnhardt crash, the number of driver deaths in U.S. racing due to crashes increased compared with the 10 years prior to 2001. (The Charlotte Observer conducted these two surveys from newspaper reports of incidents at local tracks across the country.) Short tracks and drag strips eventually had the same problem that plagued Formula 1 first, then Indy cars and finally NASCAR. Technology led to cornering speeds that exceeded the capacity of cockpit and driver safety equipment. Think powerful crate motors and much stiffer chassis as technology trickled down. Unfortunately, safety didn’t always trickle down with the go-fast technology.

MYTH: Earnhardt loosened his belts in the late stages of races so he could move around better in the car. 

The facts: Only armchair racers believe in this urban/rural legend. Earnhardt’s lap belt broke because it stretched as a result of being tight. The belt being mounted about eight inches too far back contributed to the stretch problem. The fibers began to tear and the belt got caught in the adjuster. Had the belts been loose, the driver would have slipped out and gone through the windshield. As it was, the belts held him before “dynamic overshoot” predictably resulted in too much neck tension.

MYTH: Earnhardt died because his head hit the steering wheel and he wasn’t wearing a full-face helmet.  

The facts: A multi-car incident just a few laps prior to the Earnhardt crash left Tony Stewart with a concussion after his head hit the steering wheel. Whether it was head whip or contact with the steering wheel, excessive neck tension resulted in Earnhardt’s fatal skull fracture. A full-face helmet protects the head and is not designed to prevent neck tension. 

MYTH: The lap belt was cut after the crash by a worker at the scene.

The facts: The belt’s ripped fabric confirmed it was torn after “dumping” occurred, when it got caught in the adjuster due to stretching.

MYTH: A HANS Device would not have saved Earnhardt.

Earnhardt’s statue reigns not far from his final crash in Turn 4. (Photo by Chuck Kleinschmidt)

The opinions: NASCAR’s own investigators privately believed a HANS Device would have reduced the neck tension enough to prevent a deadly basal skull fracture. Jim Downing, whose company developed the HANS along with inventor Bob Hubbard, believes the seat belt would have remained intact long enough to sufficiently reduce the neck tension.

NASCAR drivers Ernie Irvan and Stanley Smith each survived basal skull fractures in the 1990s, because of prompt medical care and their bleeding was not sufficient to kill them. Future world champion Mika Hakkinen survived a basal skull fracture at the Australian Grand Prix in 1995, again due to prompt medical treatment. When severe, a basal skull fracture results in a fatal loss of blood from the arteries and veins that run from the neck to the head in a matter of seconds.

MYTH: The fatal ARCA Series crash of Blaise Alexander at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in October of 2001 forced NASCAR to mandate head restraints. 

The facts: NASCAR’s investigation of Earnhardt’s crash led the sanctioning body to conclude it had to change its safety policy, previously built on the legal premise of not mandating anything that might fail, a policy which also included helmets and fire suits. (Drivers used them voluntarily.) It took several months for NASCAR to make sure its teams had the proper seats, harness installations, and head surrounds before manding head restraints. Otherwise, the HANS could have been subject to failure and a liability suit. The goal was to have teams fully compliant with cockpit installations in time for Talladega in October of 2001 and the following races, including Charlotte.

MYTH: Interest in basal skull fractures began with NASCAR losing three drivers to the injury in 2000 prior to the 2001 Daytona 500. 

The facts: After the charismatic, popular world champion Ayrton Senna was killed by a suspension piece that pierced his helmet visor when his Williams hit the wall at Imola in 1994, there was a worldwide political outcry about Formula 1’s danger. In addition, two days prior to Senna’s crash, Rubens Barrichello was hospitalized with a severe concussion. The day before Senna’s crash, Roland Ratzenberger was killed by a basal skull fracture during qualifying. In the first practice session after Imola at Monaco, Karl Wendlinger suffered a concussion at Tabac that was severe enough to require an induced coma for recovery.

The combination of the outcry about Senna’s death and the successive head injuries convinced FIA President Max Mosley to begin what became a safety revolution. The interest in basal skull fractures accelerated after Hakkinen’s near miss in 1995. Formula 1 announced its HANS mandate in the summer of 2000, but teams resisted until 2003. 

(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram’s book “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt – How the HANS Helped Save Racing” comprises a comprehensive account of the fatality-marred decade from 1994 until 2001 in major league racing. Published by RJP Books, signed copies of “CRASH!” are available at www.jingrambooks.com.)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, February 13 2021
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