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The Black Sunday crash hadn't even looked that bad at first blush, further fueling that newly ignited fear. Earnhardt had suffered a not uncommon racing injury: the basilar skull fracture, wherein a sharp hit to the back of the skull can damage the all-important carotid artery and cause instant death. No fire, in other words. No flying through the air. Not more than two cars involved in the wreck (his and Ken Schrader's).
But Earnhardt himself, beyond being the sport's singular hero, had also been around long enough to personally reject the very devices that would become mandatory in memoriam. By his own choosing, Dale Sr. never wore a full-face helmet. Even worse, after being shown the most important device that his death popularized—the HANS (head and neck support) device—he rejected it. Superman, after all, didn't need a glorified neck brace. "Even then there was a group of experts that had already been telling drivers, Hey, man, you need to look at this!" Hmiel says, shaking his head. "We were like, Nah, we're racers, we know more than you guys do."
Bodine was one of the few who stole a glance. Before he joined NASCAR R&D as an engineer in 2004 Bodine claimed the distinction of being the first NASCAR driver to don a HANS device, back in '00 at Pocono. The garage's reaction recalled a fourth-grader's to orthodontic headgear. "I was looked at like, You can't race with that on!" Bodine recalls. "You won't be able to turn your head! You can't function!"
But just months later, after Daytona, the HANS would become the central feature of that newly improved "office." Word spread, questions began to be asked and by the following August—at the Pepsi 400 at Michigan—41 of 43 drivers were wearing HANS devices. And as for the other renovations? Experts polled by SI have come to identify the following concepts as the three most important evolutions in NASCAR safety.
1) Driver restraint. Says Fisher, "Driver restraint is the name of the game." When NASCAR consulted with outside experts in 2001—a group that also came to involve voices from the large auto manufacturers (whose resources and experience had long outstripped the sport's)—the advice was clear: most of NASCAR's energy should be devoted to keeping the driver firmly in place. Such a mandate eventually involved a troika of initiatives: the HANS; a seat belt with six points of restraint; and a better seat.
Conveniently enough, NASCAR found, IndyCar already boasted a seat model to aspire to: one valuing "full containment," with the head and shoulder cradled on both sides with molded padding. When IndyCar drivers sat down, they couldn't move. "And if the driver can't move," Gideon points out, "he'll probably be O.K." Research verified that range of movement is inversely proportional to driver safety, and that principle has taken hold. Hendrick Motorsports—owned by Rick Hendrick, a longtime friend of Dale Sr.—today supports an entire carbon shop for building its brand of specialty carbon-fiber (for maximal rigidity) seats. More than half of the Sprint Cup garage now uses Hendrick seats; and those that still prefer aluminum use them in stiffer grades.
2) SAFER walls. This is another IndyCar innovation that is at last found at every national oval. Short for "steel and foam energy reduction," development on these soft barriers had started in 2000—in large part thanks to scientists at the University of Nebraska—and they were first installed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in '02. Now cars that ram into walls first encounter steel tubing, which is backed up by a cushion of thick closed-cell foam that allows the wall to move when hit.
3) The new car. How much did safety concerns contribute to the conception and standardization of NASCAR's new car design? Try 100%. Three changes to the middle third took hold. As in the world of drag racing, the driver's roll cage was moved away from the left side of the car and toward the center. The cockpit was given a larger "greenhouse," making it wider and taller (also granting a bigger window to climb out of in case of emergency). And the door itself was given an anti-intrusion plate, complete with a layer of absorbent foam, to guard against left-side impacts. "As far as safety is concerned, young drivers today don't realize how good they have it," Bodine says. "That's what I'm most proud of: that the information path is so, so open."
IT IS A TESTAMENT TO THE SPORT'S radically elevated safety baseline that, says Fisher, "a lot of [NASCAR R&D] efforts are now focusing on injury prevention instead of fatality prevention. Concussions, as in football, are currently a hot topic. Some critics have pushed for upgrading the ad hoc medical liaisons at the tracks to dedicated traveling medical crews.
But for any human being who chooses to make a living riding around in a 3,450-pound hunk of metal at 200 miles an hour, it would be equally dangerous to slip into a false sense of security. That, too, is the abiding lesson of Earnhardt's death. "These things'll still kill you," Hmiel says of racing cars. "It still demands a special breed of person to do this. I don't want anyone going, 'Oh, it's so darn safe now.' Man, that's not true."