Monday, February 19, 2001

NASCAR pays high price for drama

        DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Dale Earnhardt got his wish. He wanted more drama in the Daytona 500. To get it, he agreed to more danger.

        This is the deal race drivers make. To fill the stands, to improve the spectacle, they push the envelope with escalating risks. Because Daytona was too dull last year; Sunday it was too deadly.

        Less than 25 laps after a harrowing 21-car crash — an accident exacerbated by NASCAR's technological tinkering — Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap, head-on collision with a concrete wall. The superman of stock cars was 49 years old, seven times the Winston Cup champion and, in the estimation of NASCAR Chairman Bill
France Jr., “the greatest driver in the history of the sport.”

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Dale Earnhardt after winning Daytona in 1998.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        Dale Earnhardt raced cars the way Jim Brown ran with a football — as if daring opponents to cross his path. He protected his position with all the subtlety of a 3,000-pound straightarm. Rival Rusty Wallace called him, “Ironhead.” Race fans referred to him, with awe and reverence, as, “The Intimidator.”

        In NASCAR's rise from a regional circuit to national prominence, Earnhardt was its most prominent star. He won 76 races on the Winston Cup circuit, including the 1998 Daytona 500, and pocketed more than $40 million in prize money. He guessed not long ago that he had four or five good years left in him.

        He looked like his old self Sunday, fending off passes with forceful blocking, leading the race four times before crashing less than a mile from a third-place finish.

        The winner was his protege, Michael Waltrip. Finishing second was his son, Dale Jr. Earnhardt Inc. dominated the race the way Team Penske once did Indianapolis. Yet somehow, amid the chaos and congestion of the final turn, Earnhardt lost control of his famous black Chevrolet Monte Carlo — No.3 — and went into the wall.

        “He had what I feel were life-ending type injuries at the time of impact,” said Dr. Steve Bohannon, director of the track's emergency medical services. “And really, nothing could be done for him.”

        Earnhardt's death was likely instantaneous. He was not breathing when the first paramedic arrived on the scene, had no pulse and never regained consciousness. He was pronounced dead at Halifax Medical Center at 5:16 p.m., less than an hour after the race, with his wife Teresa at his side. Later, the track's infield flag was lowered to half-staff.

        It was unclear whether NASCAR's recent aerodynamic adjustments had any bearing on the fatal accident, but it was plain that the product had become infinitely more hazardous than it had been a year ago.

        Earnhardt had been prominent among those who complained that last year's race wasn't sufficiently competitive. His death sends a signal that it is again time to scale back.

        “I know that Dale Earnhardt said something about last year's racing — that (NASCAR founder) Bill France would be rolling over in his grave,” driver Dale Jarrett said before Earnhardt was pronounced dead. “(But) I don't think this is what he had in mind, either. I'm sorry, but that's not racing. It may be a great show out there, but from a driver's perspective that's not it.”

        Technical changes prompted by the poor reviews of last year's race altered the entire dynamic of Daytona. Rear spoilers were raised from 45-degree angles to 75 degrees. Thin metal strips — known as “blades” — were added to the roofs of the cars. The result was enhanced drafting, improved passing and, evidently, compromised safety.

        Instead of a long line of cars strung out in single file, Sunday's race featured a dense pack of drivers who were able to race two- and sometimes three-abreast. Last year's race included only nine lead changes. Sunday, there were 49.

        While these changes were wonderfully stimulating for the spectators, they were fairly terrifying to the men who served as the spectacle. “You can't put that many people in one pack and expect that something is not gonna happen,” driver Jeff Burton said. “...It's just a mess. The Daytona 500 is the biggest race of the year. I know it was exciting to watch, but exciting and dangerous are two different things.”

        There isn't much margin for error at 180 mph and there's even less when the field is bunched as tightly as bowling pins. Sunday's multi-car crash began as a single mistake and ended up wiping out almost half the field. Tony Stewart's car flipped over twice in the chain-reaction, and he was fortunate to escape with a concussion.

        “When you bunch 'em up and you slow 'em down, that's what you're gonna get,” said driver Jeremy Mayfield. “That's what's bad. Everybody sat there waiting for it to happen. I don't know what to tell you or what to do. NASCAR does a good job and they'll get it straightened out somehow, but it's definitely treacherous. I can tell you that.”

        Dale Earnhardt understood the dangers and chose to keep driving. It's part of the deal — a compact with calamity.

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