Wednesday, August 22, 2001

Earnhardt's legacy should be increased safety

        Dale Earnhardt is still dead. This much is beyond dispute. The doctors still debate the specific cause, but they can all agree it's far too late for a cure. The engineers can simulate the crash with startling specificity, but they remain powerless to prevent it.

        In revisiting the fatal wreck of its most famous driver Tuesday afternoon, NASCAR dispensed more blame than balm. Rather than mandate safety measures that might prevent future tragedies, stock car racing's governing body staged an elaborate press conference to clarify and contradict previous accounts of the accident.

        Racing is inherently risky. Tuesday, NASCAR's administrators and its hired
experts were as bold as a bunch of rookies running four wide into a tight turn.

        To NASCAR's credit, it did not flinch from the facts in disclosing the results of its investigation. It permitted its consultants to reach their own conclusions, however inconvenient, and released their findings in extraordinary detail.

        Dr. Jim Raddin's “Injury Causation Analysis” was both thorough and persuasive, but it was hardly consistent with earlier versions of the event.

        Without the benefit of the autopsy photos studied by Duke University's Dr. Barry Myers, Raddin challenged Myers' theory that Earnhardt had died of a massive head-whip. He disputed the recollection of paramedic Tommy Propst, who said Earnhardt's seat belt was intact when he reached the accident scene. He cast enough doubt on the reliability of the seat belt that the manufacturer held a follow-up debriefing for the assembled media.

More precautions

        It was all a little weird, when you think about it. Earnhardt drove his car into a concrete wall somewhere in excess of 155 mph. That's a set of circumstances sufficient to test any man's mortality, and a danger race drivers accept each time they climb behind the wheel. Yet because of Earnhardt's stature, no detail of his death escaped scrutiny.

        “No one's ever said this is a safe sport,” said Cincinnati native Rodney Combs, a former Winston Cup driver. “But maybe it takes Superman to die before everyone realizes you need to be more careful.”

        NASCAR president Mike Helton reiterated Tuesday that he would not react “for the sake of reacting” and refuses to require drivers to use head-and-neck restraints. Still, subtler pressures prompted 41 of the 43 drivers in Sunday's Pepsi 400 to wear either the HANS or Hutchens devices, including Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

        “I haven't worn them in a race yet,” said Cincinnati's Jeff Fultz, who races on NASCAR's All-Pro circuit. “It's a matter of getting comfortable with them. A lot of us feel that what happened with the Earnhardt thing was just something that happened. I don't know if it could have been prevented.”

Revelation of mortality

        Whether Earnhardt's death can prevent future fatalities will depend on how drivers deal with it.

        “The drivers who have been there a long time, they don't seem the same,” Fultz said. “They don't want to be as dangerous and wide-open as they were. Their hearts aren't where they used to be.”

        Maybe this is a good thing. In the long run, the cause of Earnhardt's death could be a lot less important than its effect.

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More Earnhardt coverage from Associated Press

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