Earnhardt report to be presented Tuesday in Atlanta
By Mike Fish, CNNSI.com
ATLANTA -- When the NASCAR brass stroll into the Hyatt Regency ballroom Tuesday, they'll come arm-in-arm with a handful of scientists and engineers, a beefy report and six months' worth of answers.
According to those close to the investigation, NASCAR spent more than $1 million, bringing together outside experts to delve into Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash at the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, as well as taking a second look at relevant details from the crashes that claimed Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper.
And understandably, no one desires to relive Earnhardt's death, so the depth of answers -- as well as remedies for making the sport more driver-friendly -- could do wonders in helping bring closure to one of NASCAR's darkest chapters.
This is show time for NASCAR and its leaders. After some early PR missteps, then escaping to a bunker and putting a gag order on its independent experts, NASCAR fully understands the issues and questions it has to convincingly put to rest:
To date, NASCAR has refused to divulge specifics on any part of its investigation, and decided on a mid-week release so as not to detract from a weekend race. Atlanta got the nod because of its accessibility for air travelers. And word is the much-anticipated presentation could easily last a couple hours.
"I think people are going to be impressed with the depth of this thing," said NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter, who'll play a role in the presentation. "And I think the experts are going to give you plenty to write about. It's certainly not going to be ho-hum.
"We've learned a lot from this. We have to tell people what we did, how we did it, what we learned, what we're going to do with it, how it's going to affect the future."
NASCAR president Mike Helton has said as many as 54 people have been working on the report.
The two organizations that reportedly led the investigation are Biodynamic Research Corp. of San Antonio and the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska. A third group, Autoliv, a Swedish-based manufacturer of safety restraint systems with a testing center in Auburn Hills, Mich., was brought in to focus on the failure of Earnhardt's belt.
It is expected the NASCAR report will support the findings of a court-appointed expert who previously determined seat belt failure wasn't a factor in Earnhardt's fatal basilar skull fracture. Even if that is case, what caused the lap belt to break remains a hot-button issue.
Last month, Autoliv demonstrated for CNNSI.com that in rare circumstances, if not properly installed or worn, the heavy-duty belts could rip apart upon impact.
The point was earlier made during a re-enactment conducted this spring in North Carolina, attended by two of the paramedics who worked on Earnhardt at the accident scene, Helton, veteran driver Ken Schrader and representatives of Richard Childress Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc.
"When it was explained to me how the belt broke, then it all made sense," said Patti Dobler, one of the paramedics. "It had to do with that swivel piece you put the seat belt through and pull through to the other side to adjust it, on the left hand side and down low, where the seat belt mounts to the floor.
"When he hit the wall, the belt got pushed forward and got jammed up into the swivel thing, and then it just tore."
Bill Simpson, founder of the company that supplied Earnhardt's belts, has also had two separate investigative reports compiled and forwarded to NASCAR attorneys in Washington. Simpson expects his findings -- which clear the company -- to be mentioned by NASCAR, and stands ready to challenge any flaws he perceives in the final report.
"[I] expect NASCAR is going to come forward with a report that is factual, no baloney, and that's what it is going to be," Simpson said. "Everybody can take it, leave it or whatever. Then, hopefully [the controversy] dies."
NASCAR officials hope that is the case.
"Even the most skeptical are going to say, 'Damn, this is all based on science and engineering and fact -- it is not opinion,'" Hunter said of the report.
The sanctioning body recognizes the importance to be seen as proactive, and is prepared to discuss a number of on-going safety initiatives. Helton, among others, understands the need for a more formalized process to deal with safety and that NASCAR will have to commit more money to it.
So, officials are also likely to discuss other safety-related initiatives under consideration, such as possibly hiring a medical liaison to oversee driver care at the tracks and a move to allow use of crash recorders in cars. In particular, NASCAR has been criticized for not employing a full-time medical director, which can be found in the other major racing bodies.
"Our philosophy is still that it's better to have local physicians who know local physicians and know their way around, but the medical liaison is something we've been looking at for several months," Hunter acknowledged. "We're trying to identify a person who would serve as liaison with the local medical people. It would be the same person that would go to Charlotte and everywhere else [on the Winston Cup circuit]."
NASCAR isn't budging from its policy of not mandating use of a head-and-neck restraint device, though Hunter said drivers will continue to be told that it is "highly recommended."
Another area, however, where NASCAR may alter its stance is on the use of crash recorders in cars. They're currently not permitted and teams can be fined $5,000 if caught with an electronic recording device in a car. Hunter said the rule could be relaxed as early as next year.
"It's been enormously useful in Indy cars, because when they started this nobody really knew what the crashes were like," said John Melvin, a biomechanical engineer and a racing safety expert. "It's opened our eyes up to some things. It pretty well tells you how severe the crashes are in terms of their speed into the wall, which occasionally can be estimated from video. It's showed that in fact the crash velocity change is typically no greater than 70 miles-an-hour on a super speedway, and quite often less depending where the car is when it loses control."
Melvin, then working for General Motors, first installed recorders in 1993 at the Indianapolis 500. The crash data eventually led to the installation of additional head padding in the cockpit and the adding of a rear intenuator, the crushable material on the back of the gear box.
The recorders could now proof particularly useful as NASCAR wrestles with car design issues.
"They'd be very useful, because if they make [design] changes to the cars it does tell you whether the crash was as severe as the previous crash in terms of velocity into wall," Melvin said. "It'll show any changes you made and what effect they had."