Earnhardt’s Death Has Saved Others’

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, February 14 2021

Dale Earnhardt died 20 years ago in the 500. His death Brough about a number of safety innovations.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Twenty years ago in the fourth turn on the final lap of the Daytona 500, stock car racing died for thousands of fans when Dale Earnhardt’s Chevrolet slammed head-on into the wall and was then hit by Ken Schrader’s Pontiac. 

With that crash, NASCAR lost its star to a basilar skull fracture. Then NASCAR Chairman and CEO Bill France Jr. decreed he never wanted it to happen again. In January 2003 NASCAR opened its research and development center. The driver’s compartment was redesigned and the seat moved more towards the center. A composite seat that would encapsulate the driver was created. Extra foam placed in the door panels and new safety bars installed. SAFER barriers were required at every track hosting a NASCAR national touring series and a driver couldn’t compete without wearing a HANS device.

There hasn’t been a death in any of NASCAR’S national series since Earnhardt on Feb. 18, 2001. Many people point to the safety innovations as the seven-time champion’s legacy, but they seem to forget the three other drivers whose lives could possibly have been saved if the use of the HANS device had been implemented sooner; a device designed in the early 1980s by Dr. Robert Hubbard, a professor of biomechanical engineering at Michigan State University.

  Nineteen-year-old Adam Petty suffered a basilar skull fracture in May 2000 at New Hampshire during a Busch Series (now Xfinity) practice. Two months later 30-year-old Kenny Irwin Jr. suffered the same fatal injury at the same track during a Cup Series practice. Then in October 2000, 35-year-old Tony Roper lost his life to a basilar skull fracture during a Truck Series race at Texas. 

For NASCAR, history was repeating itself with four fatalities within a year due to a need for better safety equipment. Prior to Earnhardt’s fatal wreck the last major safety development era occurred in the mid-1960s following the deaths of Joe Weatherly, Fireball Roberts, Jimmy Pardue and Billy Wade. Weatherly’s death occurred in January 1964 at Riverside, Calif. Roberts, that era’s speedway star, died in July 1964 due to complications from the second- and third-degree burns he suffered in May at Charlotte. Pardue and Wade died during tire tests at Charlotte and Daytona, respectively, in October 1964 and January 1965. The safety innovations that resulted from those four fatalities were the six-point harness seat belt, fire retardant uniforms and the racing tire’s inner liner. The window net didn’t arrive until after Richard Petty’s horrific crash at Darlington in May 1970 when the upper portion of his body came outside his race car’s window as his Plymouth barrel-rolled down the track’s frontstretch (now backstretch). The window net was his mother’s suggestion. 

Prior to NASCAR opening its R&D center, the sanctioning body only suggested the use of various safety items, such as fire-retardant gloves and full-faced helmets. NASCAR’s concern was if it required the equipment and it failed, the sanctioning body could be sued. However, Earnhardt’s death changed that philosophy. The loss of Earnhardt brought the harsh reality of death to the forefront of everyone’s mind in stock car racing. After Earnhardt’s death one driver’s mother told me, “I never worried about my son until we lost Earnhardt.”

Today’s drivers confront the sport’s dangers openly.

“I am scared every time I go to Daytona or Talladega because you just know in the back of your mind what can happen there,” NASCAR Cup Series rookie Chase Briscoe said. “You know you’re gonna be going very, very fast and just the potential of a wreck that can hurt you or worse is just heightened there compared to any other race track.” 

Earnhardt was considered invincible in a race car, but on that sunny Sunday afternoon 20 years ago the sport’s superman met his kryptonite and the sport changed forever. 

(Editor’s note: Deb Williams is in her fourth decade of covering motorsports. The former editor of NASCAR Winston Cup Scene and managing editor of GT Motorsports has also covered auto racing for United Press International, USA Today and The Charlotte Observer. The 1990 and 1996 National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year has authored five books and hosts the podcast “Racing Now and Then.”)


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, February 14 2021
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