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Case closed

NASCAR releases findings of fatal Earnhardt crash probe

Posted: Tuesday August 21, 2001 3:18 PM

ATLANTA ( -- Six months after the death of Dale Earnhardt, a NASCAR investigation determined a broken seat belt was a factor in The Intimidator's death. However, the report does not recommend widespread changes to improve safety.

The findings were released Tuesday and found the seat belt, the collision with another car and angle and impact in which Earnhardt hit the wall all played a role in the fatal crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18.

"We are dismayed and disappointed that NASCAR leaves open the question of whether the belt separation caused Dale Earnhardt's injury, and failed to mention that the installation did not conform to manufacturers specifications," said Jim Voyles, an attorney for Bill Simpson, maker of the safety belt. "The shadow that continues to be cast is in the direct contradiction to our experts.

"NASCAR failed to mention that seat belt was not installed according to manufacturer specification, and this improper installation was the cause of the separation of the webbing."

In its two-volume report, NASCAR said that beginning next season it will install "black boxes" in cars to help understand the forces during crashes and improve safety. In mandating the installation of "black boxes," which will only record data, NASCAR is following the example of CART and the Indy Racing League. Ford and General Motors has been supplying black-box technology to the two leagues for several years in an effort to better understand the forces in crashes. Until now, NASCAR had resisted using the boxes on its cars, in part because it feared teams would use the information for competitive advantages.

However, NASCAR will not require drivers to wear head and neck restraints, although it said it encourages their use. "We are still not going to react for the sake of reacting," NASCAR president Mike Helton said.

Earnhardt was not wearing a HANS restraint when he was killed, but NASCAR said it was unclear whether the device would have saved him. Use of the devices has dramatically increased since his crash; 41 of 43 drivers wore them in Sunday's Pepsi 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

Helton said NASCAR will use computer models to design safer cars and will be involved in testing of race track barriers. However, the report contained no recommendations on changes to cars or barriers. "There's not a bulletin getting ready to go out this afternoon to change walls at race tracks or roll bars in race cars," Helton said. "But there was an effort that began this time last year, and that became very aggressive as we were given opportunities in a very tragic way to understand things that we never understood before."

Kyle Petty, father of NASCAR driver Adam Petty, who was killed in an on-track crash last year at Loudon, N.H., said, "Even though the results were announced [Tuesday], the drivers and teams have been seeing a lot of these results all season long. There have been plenty of times that someone from NASCAR would come through the garage asking and checking different things in the driver's compartment, making suggestions and offering some new ideas.

"I guess the public heard some new things, and maybe we heard a few new things too," said Petty, who drives the No. 45 Dodge. "But by and large, a lot of things NASCAR has learned since February have already been implemented. They didn't make a big deal out of it, and neither did the teams."

Dr. James H. Raddin Jr., one of the lead investigators, said the conclusion of the report is that "there were a number of factors in which the timing came together" to cause Earnhardt's death. Raddin said one finding was that Earnhardt's left lapbelt broke from the force of slamming into the concrete wall, allowing the driver to be flung further forward and to the right than if the entire five-point seat-belt harness had remained intact.

He added, however, that the study found the collision with the car driven by Ken Schrader before both slammed into the wall might have played a major role in the death of the seven-time Winston Cup champion. Earnhardt was thrown to the right, and his fatal injuries apparently came when his head turned, his helmet rotated on his head, and the left rear of his skull was left bare to hit the side of the steering wheel, the rear of the seat or both, the report said.

A second investigator, Dr. Dean L. Sicking of the University of Nebraska, found that the car was traveling between 157-160 mph when it hit the wall.

In finding that the fracture started with a blow to the back of the head, Raddin disagreed with a court-appointed, independent medical examiner who determined the fracture was caused by a violent head whip. That examiner, Dr. Barry Myers of Duke, studied Earnhardt's autopsy photos and concluded earlier this year that seat-belt failure "does not appear to have played a role" in his death.

Click the image to launch the clip

The Autoliv testing crew proves that nylon seat belts can break during a crash. Start

David Funnell explains the processes used to evaluate seat belts.
Chipp Jackson wishes NASCAR was more enthuiastic about his company's program.
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"It is now time to move on. This has been a very painful process for a lot of us and I hope [Tuesday's] statement can bring some closure," said Richard Childress, Earnhardt's longtime car owner. "All of us -- owners, drivers, manufacturers, and independent research groups -- need to continue to work with NASCAR to ensure a strong future for our sport. I know Dale would want it that way."

Teresa Earnhardt, widow of the seven-time Winston Cup champion, said in a statement: "My family and I appreciate NASCAR's thorough report into Dale's accident. The findings released today are based on the most comprehensive information available and appear to be consistent with previously released medical reports and our own understanding. We thank NASCAR for its good faith effort to make the facts known, and look forward to hearing future recommendations."

Helton said the stock car racing organization will commission a study on restraint systems to take a closer look at seat-belt strength. NASCAR also is working on opening a research center in Conover, N.C., sometime next year and will continue to work with experts on car safety. But NASCAR will not mandate the use of the head and neck restraints that are designed to reduce violent head whips in crashes.

"We are pleased that a majority of Winston Cup drivers now use them," Helton said. "But we are not completely satisfied. We have intensified our efforts with drivers, equipment manufacturers and outside experts with the goal of helping all drivers find a system in which they feel comfortable and safer."

As for the seat belt, Raddin ruled out that is was cut by rescue workers as they tried to remove Earnhardt from the battered car. Five days after the fatal crash, NASCAR said a broken seat belt had been found in the car. "The physical evidence is clear," said Raddin, who displayed a blown up photo of Earnhardt's seat belt. "This was not a cutting of a belt afterward. This was a belt that separated under load."

Raddin, a director with San Antonio-based Biodynamic Research Corp., attributed the break to a phenomenon called "dumping," which is when the webbing is pulled or moved to one side of the adjustment device through which the belt webbing travels. When a dumped belt is under stress, it can separate and tear across the entire webbing. Raddin concluded that the dumping was not caused by driver adjustment because the marks on the left lap belt showed it was tightened in a symmetrical fashion.

The controversy over the seat belt, made by Simpson Race Products, led to the resignation of the founder of the Charlotte, N.C.-based company. Simpson quit last month, saying the stress "got to be too much."

Earnhardt died of a massive blow to the head, concluded Dr. Thomas Parsons, a medical examiner in Daytona Beach, Fla., who conducted the autopsy. Earnhardt had a skull fracture that ran from the front to the back of his head and the impact also fractured his sternum, eight ribs on the left side and his left ankle.

According to those close to the investigation, NASCAR spent more than $1 million, bringing together outside experts to delve into Earnhardt's fatal crash, as well as taking a second look at relevant details from the crashes that claimed drivers Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper.

The two organizations that led the investigation are Biodynamic Research Corp. 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.

Last month, Autoliv demonstrated for 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, 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."

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.

Simpson's Response
Reports from independent experts who made detailed examinations of the seat belt restraint system used by Dale Earnhardt. Click on the company name for a copy of that company's report:
  • Accident Reconstruction Analysis, Inc.
  • MHMuzzy Consulting, LLC. 
  • has learned that Simpson attorneys have asked NASCAR to address a handful of points in its report that would clear the company, including:

  • The belts were of high quality in workmanship and there were no design or manufacturing defects.

  • The belts met the NASCAR rule book requirements.

  • The belts, as installed, did not conform to manufacturer installation requirements.

  • The separation of the left lap belt was not a result of design or manufacturing defect, but caused by improper installation.

  • The belt separation was not the cause of Earnhardt's death.

    NASCAR has not responded to the Simpson request, and company officials arrived here expecting to not be fully satisfied with the sanctioning body's response.

    Helton and the two lead investigators met with the majority of the drivers at a North Carolina country club early Tuesday morning to present their findings and answer questions. Among those in attendance at the presentation where Earnhardt's eldest son, Kerry, his daughter, Kelly, and several members of Dale Earnhardt Inc.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. did not attend the presentation, but a NASCAR spokesman said Helton has privately gone over the report with him. Earnhardt Jr.'s spokesman said the driver would have no comments Tuesday.

  • Complete text of Dr. Barry Myers' independent report.

    Related information
    Drivers react favorably to NASCAR report
    Simpson skeptical of being cleared by NASCAR
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