Death of Dale Earnhardt
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Earnhardt is forced into the wall as Ken Schrader makes contact in Turn 4.
|Date||February 18, 2001|
|Location||Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Florida, United States|
|Outcome||NASCAR began improving safety of the cars, which resulted in the Car of Tomorrow.|
Dale Earnhardt was an American race car driver who gained fame as a stock car driver for NASCAR, for winning seven Winston Cup championships, and for his first Daytona 500 victory in 1998. He was involved in a last-lap collision in the 2001 Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2001. He was pronounced dead at the Halifax Medical Center at 5:16 p.m, having sustained blunt force trauma to the head. His funeral was held on February 22, 2001 at the Calvary Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Earnhardt's death was highly publicized and generated intense interest from the media and resulted in various safety improvements in NASCAR auto racing.
Following Earnhardt's death and the subsequent investigation of the events leading to his death, NASCAR began an intensive focus on safety that has seen the organization mandate the use of head-and-neck restraints, oversee the installation of SAFER barriers at all oval tracks, set rigorous new inspection rules for seats and seat-belts, develop a roof-hatch escape system, and which eventually led to the development of a next-generation race car built with extra driver safety in mind: the Car of Tomorrow. Earnhardt had been the fourth driver to die in NASCAR competition within a year, beginning with Adam Petty's fatal crash in May 2000. Since Earnhardt's death, no Cup series driver has died in competition to date.
- 1 Circumstances of Earnhardt's death
- 2 Aftermath
- 3 Replacing Earnhardt
- 4 Cause of death controversy
- 5 Improper safety harness installation contributes to severity of injuries
- 6 Safety improvements
- 7 Autopsy pictures
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 External links
Circumstances of Earnhardt's death
Rules of competition
Earnhardt died while competing in the 2001 Daytona 500, a NASCAR-sanctioned automobile race at Daytona International Speedway. NASCAR sanctions required the use of a carburetor restrictor plate for races held at the track. In 2000, the year before Earnhardt died, NASCAR instituted additional restrictions to the springs and shocks used on the cars, causing Earnhardt to complain to the media, "[The rules] took NASCAR Winston Cup racing and made it some of the sorriest racing. They took racing out of the hands of the drivers and the crews. We can't adjust and make our cars drive like we want. They just killed the racing at Daytona. This is a joke to have to race like this."
In response to criticism such as Earnhardt's, NASCAR developed a new aerodynamic package for the cars competing in Winston Cup Series races at Daytona and Talladega. In the initial running of this aerodynamic package at Talladega, Earnhardt passed seventeen cars within four laps to win the fall 2000 Talladega race. The 2001 Daytona 500 was the first 500 mile race run at the track with this package, which was designed to keep cars bunched up close together and to allow more frequent passing at high speed.
Events prior to the race
In the weeks before the Daytona 500, Earnhardt elected not to attend the annual fan and media preview event, drawing vocal criticism from fellow driver Jimmy Spencer. On February 3 and 4, 2001, the first time in his career, Earnhardt participated in the Rolex 24 endurance race at Daytona, the event which kicks off Speedweeks at the track. Earnhardt and his teammates, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Andy Pilgrim, and Kelly Collins, finished 4th overall and 2nd in class.
Ultimately, however, 2001 Speedweeks would be the first in many years that Earnhardt failed to win one race. In the Budweiser Shootout, Earnhardt finished second to Tony Stewart. Earnhardt was also denied victory in the Gatorade Twin 125 qualifying race. Earnhardt had won every Twin 125 event he competed in during the 1990s, and was poised to win again in 2001 when Sterling Marlin pulled off a slingshot pass going down the backstretch, taking the victory away from Earnhardt.
Events of the race
The morning of the race, Earnhardt appeared confident and relaxed. Earnhardt was a front-runner throughout the race, leading for 17 laps. In the first three quarters of the race, there were only two caution flags: first, a caution on lap 49 when Jeff Purvis hit the wall exiting turn 4, ; the second on lap 157, when rookie Kurt Busch hit the frontstretch wall while trying to pass Joe Nemechek, and slid through infield and into pit road.
On lap 173, Earnhardt and his familiar black #3 car were running in third, with two of his race team's cars, the blue #15 NAPA Chevrolet driven by Michael Waltrip and the red #8 Budweiser Chevrolet run by his son Dale Earnhardt, Jr., running first and second in front of him. On that lap, a crash on the back straightaway eliminated eighteen drivers in spectacular fashion, and led to the race being red-flagged for a lengthy cleanup: Jason Leffler, Earnhardt's first driver Steve Park, Rusty Wallace (who would rally back to finish third), Robby Gordon, Terry Labonte, Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart, Elliott Sadler, Ward Burton, Jeff Gordon, Jerry Nadeau, Kenny Wallace, John Andretti, Buckshot Jones, Dale Jarrett, Andy Houston and Jeff Burton. The crash started when Robby Gordon turned Ward Burton, who had led the most laps in the race so far (53 laps) at the exit of turn 2. Tony Stewart was hit by Ward, turned backwards against the outside wall, and was pushed airborne over Robby Gordon. Stewart then barrel-rolled two full times, hooking to Bobby Labonte's hood, and stood on his front wheels before coasting to a stop in the infield, while Ward's car turned sideways and collected most of the field behind him. Earnhardt, Ron Hornaday, Ricky Rudd and Ken Schrader were four of the few drivers who escaped the wreckage.
During the ensuing caution, Earnhardt spoke his final words, in this conversation between him and his Rolex 24 teammate Andy Pilgrim:
|“||Earnhardt: So, you got any advice for me here coming up?||”|
|“||Pilgrim: No, man, I haven't got any advice for you. Just keep doing what you're doing.||”|
|“||Earnhardt: Okay, just wondering.||”|
|“||Pilgrim: Cheers; talk to you later.||”|
The race restarted on lap 180, with Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. still out in front. Sterling Marlin, who had beaten Earnhardt in the Gatorade Duel, led the next three laps before Waltrip took the lead again. The lead changed several times between Waltrip and Earnhardt, Jr. during the next few laps.
As the laps wound down, Waltrip and Earnhardt, Jr. were running in first and second place, with Earnhardt, Sr. behind them, blocking Marlin's attempts to pass. With less than two laps remaining, Fox commentator Darrell Waltrip noted that "Sterling has beat the front end off of that ol' Dodge [Marlin's car] trying to get around Dale [Earnhardt Sr.]".
As the cars entered Turn 3 on the final lap, Earnhardt still held third, and was running in the middle lane of traffic. Marlin's #40 Coors Light Dodge was just behind him and running the bottom lane, while Rusty Wallace's navy blue #2 Miller Lite Ford was directly behind Earnhardt and Ken Schrader was above Earnhardt riding the high lane in his yellow #36 M&M's Pontiac.
The accident began in turn 4, when the front bumper of Marlin's car came into contact with the left rear bumper of Earnhardt's car. Earnhardt's car veered off the track onto the flat safety apron, then turned sharply to the right—back onto the banked racing surface, which put Earnhardt's car in the path of Schrader's car. Schrader's car impacted Earnhardt's car in the passenger door area, spinning Earnhardt's car toward the wall moments before impact. Earnhardt's car impacted the wall at a critical angle, causing maximum damage, at an estimated speed of 155 to 160 mph (249 to 260 km/h). Upon impact, the right-rear wheel assembly on Earnhardt's car broke, the passenger-door window blew out, and the hood pins severed, causing the hood to open and slam against the windshield. Schrader's car pushed Earnhardt's car down the track after the wreck. No other vehicles impacted Earnhardt's car after it hit the wall, as all other drivers were able to make it past the wreck without incident.
As the cars of Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. raced to the finish line, the wrecked cars of Earnhardt, Sr. and Schrader slid off the banking into the infield grass near the exit of Turn 4, and Earnhardt's right wheel assembly detached from the car. Despite the heavy damage to the car, to outside observers, the crash looked relatively minor compared to the lap 173 crash – and several of the cars involved in that accident (such as Tony Stewart and Ward Burton) had appeared to have taken harder hits and body damage than Earnhardt took in his last lap crash.
After the cars came to rest in the grass, Schrader, who received minor injuries, climbed out of his car and went to check on Earnhardt, but immediately jumped back and began to wave frantically for paramedics.
The checkered flag was thrown after the accident. Waltrip won the race, with Earnhardt, Jr. finishing behind him. Wallace finished third while Marlin came across seventh, and Earnhardt and Schrader were credited with twelfth and thirteenth places despite not finishing the last lap (only 11 cars – Waltrip and Earnhardt, Jr. included – finished on the lead lap as a result of the long green flag runs and the lap 173 crash). After crossing the finish line, Earnhardt, Jr. got out of his car and rushed to his father.
Details of the crash
A later investigation revealed that Earnhardt's car struck the concrete retaining wall at a heading angle (angle of the vehicle measured from the wall face to the center-line of the car at point of impact) of between 55° to 59°, combined with a trajectory angle of 13.6° (path of vehicle approaching the wall) and an estimated speed of between 157 to 161 mph (253 to 259 km/h). Earnhardt's car experienced a crash impulse of approximately 80 milliseconds in duration. The result of the wall impact and the impact from Schrader's car combined to yield a change in velocity of approximately 42–44 mph (68–71 km/h). The force exerted was equivalent to a vertical drop from a height of 61.8 feet (18.8 m). Subsequent sled testing of an exemplar vehicle yielded g-forces ranging from −68 g to −48 g, variation dependent on method of measurement. Earnhardt was killed instantly.
Earnhardt had to be cut from his car and was taken to Halifax Medical Center by ambulance, where he was pronounced dead at 5:16 PM. He was reportedly surrounded by his wife Teresa Earnhardt, his team owner/friend Richard Childress, and Earnhardt, Jr. As per NASCAR rules, any driver involved in a crash and unable to drive back to the pits, or who must be extricated from his car, must report to the infield hospital. However, in severe cases, the driver may be sent directly to the emergency trauma room at the major hospital near the circuit.
About two hours later, at a press conference, NASCAR President Mike Helton relayed the information to the media, "This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements that I've ever personally had to make, but after the accident in Turn 4 at the end of the Daytona 500, we've lost Dale Earnhardt."
Earnhardt's official cause of death was given by the Volusia County medical examiner's office as blunt force trauma to the head from the impact with the wall. He had also sustained a fatal basilar skull fracture, eight broken left ribs, a broken left ankle, a sternal fracture (possibly from attempted CPR), and abrasions in the clavicle and hip areas (proving that the seat belts performed as designed).
Earnhardt's death triggered widespread media attention. One newspaper called the day "Black Sunday." Grieving fans congregated at the headquarters of Richard Childress Racing and Dale Earnhardt Incorporated the night of the accident, and at Daytona International Speedway. Earnhardt was featured in the following week's Time magazine, and video from the race was played on nearly every major United States televised newscast. Earnhardt's funeral was held on February 22, 2001, at the Calvary Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. His death resulted in both a police investigation and a NASCAR-sanctioned investigation. In a reversal of previous NASCAR policy, nearly every detail of the investigation was made public.
In the days following the accident, Sterling Marlin received hate mail and death threats from fans who blamed Marlin for Earnhardt's death. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Michael Waltrip absolved Marlin of responsibility and asked everyone who loved his father to stop assigning blame for his death. On February 20, Marlin relayed the following to the public:
|“||I definitely didn't do anything intentional. We were just racing our guts out for the last lap of the Daytona 500. Everybody was going for it. Dale's car got caught in the middle [three-wide with Ken Schrader]. I was as low as I could go. Whether Rusty [Wallace] got him loose and down into me, I don't know. You have to talk to Rusty Wallace. I watched the tape one time and that is all I want to see it.||”|
Team owner Richard Childress made a public pledge that a black car sponsored by GM Goodwrench would never again use the number 3, honoring the color scheme and sponsor Earnhardt had driven with since 1988. Given the #3 team's finish 13th in the race, its 2000 season status as second in owner points, and its presence on the Winner's Circle bonus program, Childress requested, and NASCAR approved, the team to be renumbered as the #29 team. The renumbered team retained the same sponsor, though the car was adorned with a reversed color scheme (white body with black numerals and a black stripe on the bottom) for races at Rockingham and Las Vegas. The team kept all bonuses earned as the #3 team in 2000 and the Daytona 500, and Earnhardt's 2001 points would be accumulated with his replacement driver's points that season. For the race at Atlanta, a new GM Goodwrench Service Plus scheme was introduced, with angled red stripes and a thin blue pinstripe, resembling the AC Delco Chevrolets driven in the Busch Series. From 2003 until 2006, when the Goodwrench sponsorship ended, the #29 car was painted in black and silver, bearing a resemblance to Earnhardt's old #3. To this day,[when?] a small #3 decal is placed alongside the #29 in Earnhardt's memory and the team's legacy. On December 11, 2013, RCR announced that the #3 will return to the Cup Series for Austin Dillon.
Childress's second-year Busch Series driver Kevin Harvick was named as Earnhardt's replacement driver, beginning with the race following Earnhardt's death, the Dura Lube 400 held at North Carolina Speedway. Hats bearing the #3 logo were distributed to everyone at the track to honor Earnhardt. Initially, the Childress team wore blank uniforms out of respect, but as Harvick's performance improved, the regular GM Goodwrench Service Plus uniforms returned, with the team scoring a top-ten finish by the next race in Las Vegas, and winning the next week in Atlanta. Dura Lube 400 pole sitter Jeff Gordon gave a missing man formation during the pace laps, a custom used in motorsports for mourning.
Harvick's win in Atlanta is memorable to many NASCAR fans. In the final lap of the 2001 Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500, Harvick beat Jeff Gordon by .006 seconds, the same margin that Earnhardt had won over Bobby Labonte at the same race a year prior, and the images of Earnhardt's longtime gas man, Danny "Chocolate" Myers, crying after the victory, Harvick's tire-smoking burnout on the frontstretch with three fingers held aloft outside the driver's window, and the Fox television call by Mike Joy, Larry McReynolds, and Darrell Waltrip, concluding with "Gordon got loose, but he [Harvick] is gonna get him though, it's Harvick! Harvick by inches!"
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won the Pepsi 400 on July 7, 2001. This led to an emotional celebration on the infield with Michael Waltrip (who finished in second place), whose victory at the Daytona 500 had been rendered hollow by the senior Earnhardt's death. Earnhardt, Jr. would win two more races that season (the fall races at Dover and Talladega), for an eighth place finish in the points standings.
The team still scored a ninth place finish in points for the 2001 season, led by Harvick's two wins and top-ten finish in the points. Harvick also captured Rookie of the Year honors as well.
Fans honored Earnhardt by holding three fingers aloft on the third lap of every NASCAR Winston Cup race. Meanwhile, NASCAR's television partners also went silent for the third lap, a practice that was repeated until the 2002 race at Rockingham, and at the 2011 Daytona 500, ten years after his death. Later in 2001, some of these gestures were also done in remembrance of the victims of the September 11 attacks.
Earnhardt, Sr. was credited with finishing 57th in the final point standings in 2001, despite only running one race. He also won the 2001 Most Popular Driver award at the end of year awards' ceremony. Bill Elliott bowed out of the running and encouraged his supporters to vote for Earnhardt instead.
Cause of death controversy
At a news conference five days after the crash, NASCAR officials announced that the left lap belt on Earnhardt's seat belt harness had broken. NASCAR's medical expert, Dr. Steve Bohannon, said he thought the faulty belt had allowed Earnhardt's chin to strike the steering wheel, causing the fatal basilar skull fracture. This led to speculation that Earnhardt would have survived if his seat belt did not break.
The first paramedics to respond to the crash scene maintained that the seat belts were loose, but the lap belt was not broken or cut when the belts were unbuckled to cut Earnhardt from the car. However, NASCAR's investigation concluded that each of the EMTs attending to Earnhardt after the crash reported the buckle position of Earnhardt's harness was off-center by four to eight inches, which would have been impossible had the lap belt not broken.
A subsequent medical investigation revealed that belt failure did not play a significant role in Earnhardt's death.
At the time of the accident, Simpson Performance Products—the company which manufactured Earnhardt's seat belts—manufactured the seat belts used in nearly every NASCAR competitor's machine. Bill Simpson, the founder of Simpson Performance Products, maintained that the belt had failed because it had been installed in an unapproved fashion in order to increase Earnhardt's comfort, an allegation that had been supported by some who were familiar with the situation.
The Orlando Sentinel, particularly sportswriter Ed Hinton, attempted to acquire Earnhardt's autopsy records and photos for study, autopsy records normally being public documents in Florida, but Earnhardt's widow, Teresa Earnhardt petitioned a judge to seal the records. After a short court battle, it was mutually agreed to appoint Dr. Barry Myers, an expert on crash injuries at Duke University, to independently study Earnhardt's death. On April 10, 2001, Myers published his report rejecting NASCAR's explanation, finding that Earnhardt's death was the result of his inadequately restrained head and neck snapping forward, independent of the broken seat belt (rendering the question of improper installation moot).
Philip Villanueva, a University of Miami neurosurgeon who had previously analyzed the crash for the Sentinel before the autopsy records were available, said he had reached the same conclusion, but had wanted to examine the autopsy photos to be certain. Dr. Steve Olvey, medical director of CART for 22 years, and Wayne State University crash expert John Melvin also agreed with Myers' report. Simpson's founder, Bill Simpson, called the report "The best news I've heard in seven weeks. I've been living in daily hell." 
On the same day as Myers' report was made public, NASCAR announced its own investigation, after having remained silent for six weeks since the accident. When the official NASCAR report, which had cost over a million dollars, was published on August 21, 2001, it concluded that Earnhardt's death was the result of a combination of factors. Those factors included the last-second collision with Schrader's car, the speed and angle of impact, and the separation of the seat belt as being contributing factors. It was also noted that investigators could not determine whether a head and neck restraint device would have saved Earnhardt's life, and that airline-style black boxes would be mandated for all vehicles in order to better understand the forces at work in a crash such as Earnhardt's.
In July 2001, Bill Simpson left Simpson Performance Products, citing the stress as "too much." The Simpson company attorneys asked NASCAR to unequivocally assert the following in regards to the broken lap belt found in Earnhardt's car:
- 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, however, did not respond.
A year after leaving his own company under controversy, Simpson returned to the motorsports safety industry after his one-year noncompete clause expired, starting IMPACT! Racing Products.
Improper safety harness installation contributes to severity of injuries
In the actual crash event, Earnhardt had been prepositioned significantly to the right as a result of the prior impact with Schrader's car. Therefore, Earnhardt's right leg moved forward and rightward from a rightward position resulting in loading against the leg guard displacing it forward and to the right. The hips transitioned forward and slightly rightward from a position already displaced to the right, leading to an asymmetric load on the lap belt. This asymmetry was likely heightened somewhat by Earnhardt’s customary habit of wrapping the crotch strap around the front of the seat rather than through the slot in the seat. This configuration is demonstrated in Figure 09 (right) showing an exemplar vehicle and restraint. The slot would have tended to provide a centering force on the buckle which would not be present during the initial load with the crotch strap around the front of the seat. The slot can be clearly seen approximately 5 inches rearward of the front edge of the seat. The net result would be to have an altered angle of pull on the left seat belt anchor from that which would normally be present. In addition, the severity and nature of the impact as previously described would result in a significantly higher tension being initially applied to the left belt webbing.
There were several safety improvements made in the sport of stock car racing following Earnhardt's death.
In response to the speculation about a broken lap belt in Earnhardt's car, many teams migrated from traditional five-point safety harnesses to six-point safety harnesses.
At the time NASCAR's report on Earnhardt's death was published, there were no rules requiring drivers to wear HANS devices. NASCAR president Mike Helton stated that "We are still not going to react for the sake of reacting." However, NASCAR did wish to "encourage their use." By August 19, 2001 41 out of 43 drivers were wearing them at the Pepsi 400 by Meijer at Michigan International Speedway, just two days before NASCAR's report came out.
Two months later, after a crash during an ARCA race killed driver Blaise Alexander, NASCAR mandated the use of head and neck restraints. Earnhardt's eldest son Kerry Earnhardt was involved in the crash that killed Alexander, although Kerry was not injured.
In addition to head and neck restraints, NASCAR began requiring the use of SAFER barriers at race tracks in which its top touring series compete. The soft walls feature foam and move slightly upon impact, dissipating energy and resulting in fewer forces being exerted on the driver during an impact.
Soon after Earnhardt's death, NASCAR began developing the Car of Tomorrow (CoT), which was used in competition in the Sprint Cup Series until it was replaced by the so-called "Gen 6" car for the 2013 season. The design of the CoT incorporated the result of research conducted in the aftermath of Earnhardt's death. All of the safety improvements from the CoT remain in the Gen 6 design.
On February 19, 2001, the Volusia County Medical Examiner performed Earnhardt's autopsy. The unusual act of notifying NASCAR and Teresa Earnhardt was made prior to releasing the records sought by members of the public and media. Three days later, Teresa Earnhardt filed a legal brief in the Circuit Court of the Seventh Judicial Circuit, in and for Volusia County, Florida (Case No. 2001-30373-CICI Div. 32). Once the complaint was filed, the coroner's office was barred from releasing the public records, including autopsy photographs, pertaining to Earnhardt, until a formal hearing on the merits of Teresa Earnhardt's case could be heard.
On February 28, March 13, and March 16, 2001, the Orlando Sentinel, Michael Uribe, founder of WebsiteCity.com, and Campus Communications, Inc., publisher of the University of Florida's student newspaper The Independent Florida Alligator, filed motions to intervene into the Earnhardt v. Volusia litigation in order to uphold their rights to inspect and copy public records held by the Volusia County Medical Examiner to include the photographs and videotape of Dale Earnhardt's autopsy examination.
On June 12–13, 2001, a trial was then conducted before Judge Joseph Will. Will eventually ruled against Uribe and CCI's original public records requests and constitutional arguments to inspect and copy the medical examiner files pertaining to Dale Earnhardt, to include autopsy photographs. Judge Will's ruling set forth in motion an extensive legal battle later fought in the appellate courts by both Uribe and CCI seeking to deem the denial of their public records request unconstitutional under Florida State and Federal laws. Then on December 1, 2003, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear Uribe and CCI's appeal. Thus, the Florida Legislature's March 29, 2001 law preventing release of Earnhardt's public record autopsy photographs would remain in effect.
The Florida Legislature's March 29, 2001 law, also known as the Earnhardt Family Protection Act, was sponsored by Senator Jim King (R-Jacksonville) and changed Florida's previously long standing and historically open public records laws from that day onward. The Earnhardt law deemed Florida's medical examination autopsy photographs, video and audio recordings exempt from public inspection without the expressed permission from applicable next of kin.
A year after Earnhardt's death, in April 2002, TLC singer Lisa Lopes was killed in a car accident in Honduras. A similar controversy to the release of Earnhardt's autopsy photos occurred, as within days of Lopes' crash, autopsy photos began to circulate on the Internet. All three of Earnhardt's drivers (Steve Park, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Michael Waltrip) responded in protest to the leak by painting a single black stripe next to their cars' left headlight decals for the Pontiac Excitement 400 at Richmond International Raceway.
- Death of Ayrton Senna – another fatal crash whose impact on Formula One was similar to that of Earnhardt's crash on NASCAR.
- List of NASCAR fatal accidents
- List of racing drivers who died in racing crashes
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