NASCAR to keep racing despite tragedy
Updated: Thursday February 22, 2001 9:44 AM
By Mike Fish, CNNSI.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Come this weekend, at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, NASCAR will crown a champion at the Dura-Lube 400 -- and it'll be back to the business of racing.
There was never much doubt, but racing officials confirmed the death of stock-car icon Dale Earnhardt wouldn't cause a break in the schedule.
"It'll go on at Rockingham, N.C., this weekend, yes," NASCAR president Mike Helton said.
Officials spent Monday heaping praise on the seven-time Winston Cup champion and, for the most part, dodging questions about what, if anything, is in store to make the sport safer.
An autopsy conducted Monday morning revealed Earnhardt, 49, died of blunt force trauma to the head, Volusia County officials said.
"This is the toughest period in NASCAR's history," said Bill France, chairman of the board. "I can't think of any time it's been more tough. ... Needless to say, this is going to be one of the big events -- if you want to call it that -- in the history of NASCAR."
How does NASCAR fill the void by the loss of its marquee driver -- of what's been compared to the NBA losing Michael Jordan in his prime? Is there another driver capable of building such a rabid fan base?
No one has a clue, only that the show must go on.
"It's going to take time, if we ever fill it," said France, whose father founded NASCAR. "I'm sure we will. Life has to go on. ... Dale Jr. looks like he's got pretty good potential to follow in his father's footsteps."
There's no word yet on whether "Little E," 26, will run this weekend at Rockingham.
What is clear, for now at least, is the sanctioning body has no plans to mandate its drivers use the Head and Neck Safety (HANS) device, which was designed to lessen the pressure on the most vulnerable part of the body -- the neck and base of the skull -- in high-impact crashes like the one that claimed Earnhardt's life.
Just last season, Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and truck racer Tony Roper died from similar base skull fractures or related conditions.
"NASCAR recommends its drivers to try -- to work with developers of it to perfect it for stock-car racers," Helton said.
Some sanctioning bodies, such as CART, have gone so far as to mandate its use.
But many stock-car drivers complain that the device is too bulky and uncomfortable, and only a handful in Sunday's 43-car field were wearing the HANS.
Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip, whose car is owned by Earnhardt, claims the HANS -- a U-shaped device that fits around the neck and attaches to the helmet with two straps -- makes it almost impossible for him to get out of the car in an emergency situation. But he's willing to further experiment with it now.
"You hear mixed reviews about it," Waltrip said. "People like the way it stabilizes your head in an incident, but people also are concerned about it being cumbersome and it being hard to get in and out of the car.
"It's just something I haven't elected to use yet. I don't think it is something that should be made a requirement, a rule. It's just something for drivers to investigate and find out if it's right for them."
Helton underscored that NASCAR has ongoing research to improve safety in the sport, but that it's not going to be cast in a reactionary mode because of the latest dark headlines.
The death of Earnhardt, though, is again stirring debate about why drivers don't take every precaution available to them, including the HANS device. As part of that discussion, some like Dr. Steve Bohannon, among the team of doctors who treated Earnhardt at the track and at Halifax Hospital, aren't convinced the device could have saved Earnhardt's life.
"I think it is still matter of speculation," Bohannon said. "Even if you restrain the head and neck in this type of injury, with forces we're talking about, hitting a concrete barricade at 150, 170 miles an hour, whatever -- there's still one more element you have to address, and that is the body has internal organs that are free floating. The brain is floating in fluid. Internal organs, the heart and liver, are all floating inside the body.
"Even if you restrain the body -- the head, the neck, the chest -- all those organs internally still move at the time of impact. The brain, for example, would still impact on the inside portion of the skull. There are considerable forces involved. Small blood vessels are torn. The brain is injured, bruised, torn."