Death of Dale Earnhardt
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The accident scene shortly after it began. Dale Earnhardt's car has collected Ken Schrader.
|Date||February 18, 2001|
|Time||5:16 p.m. EST (22:16 UTC)|
|Venue||Daytona International Speedway|
|Location||Daytona Beach, Florida, U.S.|
|Outcome||NASCAR safety improvements, including the Car of Tomorrow, SAFER barrier, and mandatory use of HANS devices|
Dale Earnhardt was an American race car driver who gained worldwide fame as a stock car driver for NASCAR, recording seven Winston Cup championship victories and 76 career wins, including the 1998 Daytona 500. He was killed in a final-lap collision in the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2001, in which he crashed into the retaining wall after making contact with Ken Schrader. Earnhardt's death was officially pronounced at the nearby Halifax Medical Center at 5:16 p.m. EST (22:16 UTC), although he likely died immediately upon impact. He was 49 years old. His funeral was held four days later at the Calvary Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Earnhardt's death was highly publicized and resulted in various safety improvements in NASCAR auto racing.
After Earnhardt's 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 oval tracks, set rigorous new inspection rules for seats and seat-belts, develop a roof-hatch escape system, and the Car of Tomorrow—which eventually led to the development of a next-generation race car built with extra driver safety in mind. Earnhardt was the fourth driver to die during NASCAR competition within a year, beginning with Adam Petty's accident in May 2000. Since Earnhardt's death, no Cup series driver has died during competition.
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 (800 km) 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.
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. (Earnhardt's son), 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.
The morning of the race, Earnhardt appeared confident and relaxed. Earnhardt was a front-runner throughout the race, leading 17 laps. In the first three quarters of the race, there were only two caution flags: the first one on lap 49 when Jeff Purvis hit the wall exiting turn 4 and the other on lap 157 when rookie Kurt Busch hit the frontstretch wall while trying to pass Joe Nemechek and slid through the infield and onto pit road.
On lap 173, Earnhardt drove his familiar black No. 3 car in third place, with two of his team's cars, the blue No. 15 Chevrolet driven by Michael Waltrip and the red No. 8 Chevrolet driven by his son Dale Earnhardt, Jr., running first and second in front of him. On that lap, a huge crash on the back straightaway eliminated 18 cars in a spectacular fashion. Those involved in the crash were Jason Leffler, Steve Park (another of Earnhardt's drivers), both Rusty (who would rally back to finish third) and Kenny Wallace, Jeff and Robby Gordon, both Bobby (the defending Cup Champion) and Terry Labonte, Mark Martin, Tony Stewart, Elliott Sadler, Jeff and Ward Burton (who had led the most laps in the race so far with 53), Jerry Nadeau, John Andretti, Buckshot Jones, Dale Jarrett (the defending Daytona 500 winner), and Andy Houston. The crash began when R. Gordon turned W. Burton at the exit of turn 2. Stewart got hit by W. Burton, turned backwards against the outside wall, and was pushed airborne over R. Gordon. Stewart then flipped over twice, hooking to B. Labonte's hood, and stood on his front wheels before coasting to a stop in the infield, while W. Burton's car turned sideways and collected most of the field behind him. Earnhardt, Ron Hornaday, Jr., Ricky Rudd and Ken Schrader were four of the few drivers who escaped the crash scene. The race was red-flagged to remove cars from the racetrack, and clean up debris.
Between the time of the lap 173 accident and a lap 180 restart, Earnhardt conversed with his pit crew over the radio. The owner of Dale Earnhardt's car, Richard Childress, describes one remark made by him during that time. "Richard, if they don't do something to these cars, it's gonna end up killing somebody."
During the ensuing caution, Earnhardt had his last conversation with his crew, this 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.
Pilgrim related that there was no further crew conversation with Earnhardt, but that he did cheer on teammates Michael (Waltrip) and (Dale Earnhardt) Junior over the radio, up to the end of the race.
The race restarted on lap 180, with 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 had beat the front end off of that ol' Dodge (Marlin's car) just 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 No. 40 Dodge was just behind him and running the bottom lane, while R. Wallace's navy blue No. 2 Ford was directly behind Earnhardt and Ken Schrader was above Earnhardt riding the high lane in his yellow No. 36 Pontiac.
Final lap crash
The accident occurred in turn 4, when Earnhardt made light contact with Marlin and slid off course. When Earnhardt attempted to regain control and turned back onto the track, he crossed in front of Schrader, colliding with Schrader and dragging his car up the track. Earnhardt collided head-on into the retaining wall at a critical angle, damaging the car at an estimated speed between 155 and 160 mph (249 and 257 km/h). Upon impact, his hood pins severed, causing it to open and slam up against the windshield multiple times. As Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. were about to complete the race, both of the wrecked cars went down the steep banking and slid into the infield grass near the exit of turn 4. No other drivers hit Earnhardt or Schrader after the crash, as they were able to make it past them without incident. After both cars came to a stop on the infield, Schrader escaped his car with minor injuries and went to check on Earnhardt. Earnhardt's window net was still up, and Schrader pulled it down himself, then frantically signalled for paramedics. That day, and in retellings of the events, Schrader described what he saw in indirect terms: "We've got bigger problems," "Look, I'm not a doctor, I'm telling you it don't look good." Only shortly after the ten year anniversary when asked about it, did Schrader finally say, "Here's the deal. When I went up to the car ... I knew. I knew he was dead, yeah. ... I didn't want to be the one who said 'Dale is dead.'"
Race officials threw the checkered flag and the yellow simultaneously as the front-runners crossed the finish line, aware only that a crash had occurred behind the finishers. Waltrip won the race, with Earnhardt, Jr. finishing second behind him. Rusty Wallace finished third, Ricky Rudd finished fourth, polesitter Bill Elliott finished fifth, Wallace's brother Mike finished sixth, Marlin finished seventh, Bobby Hamilton finished eighth, Jeremy Mayfield finished ninth, and outside polesitter Stacy Compton finished 10th. Joe Nemechek finished 11th. Earnhardt and Schrader were credited finishing 12th and 13th despite not completing the final 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). Afterwards, Earnhardt, Jr. rushed to his father's location. Earnhardt was extricated from his car by Daytona's safety teams and was taken to the Halifax Medical Center. Attempts to revive Earnhardt failed and his death was officially pronounced at 5:16 p.m. EST (22:16 UTC); he was 49 years old. The official cause of Earnhardt's death was given by the Volusia County medical examiner's office as blunt force trauma to his head among other injuries due to the incident. He also sustained a fatal basilar skull fracture on impact.
As per NASCAR rules, any driver involved in a crash and unable to drive back to the pits or who must be extricated from their car, must report to the infield hospital. However, in severe cases, the driver may be sent directly to the emergency trauma room at the hospital near the circuit. Less than two hours after the accident, NASCAR president Mike Helton announced Earnhardt's death. 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 55-59°, combined with a trajectory angle of 13.6° (path of vehicle approaching the wall) and an estimated speed between 157 and 161 mph (253 and 259 km/h). Earnhardt 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). Later sled testing of an exemplar vehicle yielded g-forces ranging from −68 to −48 g, variation dependent on method of measurement.
Earnhardt's death triggered widespread media attention. One newspaper called the day "Black Sunday". Devastated fans congregated at the headquarters of Richard Childress Racing and Dale Earnhardt, Inc. the night of the crash and at Daytona International Speedway. Earnhardt was featured in the following week's Time magazine, and a video from the race was played on nearly every major television channel in the United States.
Earnhardt's public funeral service was held on February 22, 2001 at the Calvary Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. His death led both to a police investigation and NASCAR-sanctioned investigation. In a reversal of previous NASCAR policy, nearly every detail of the investigation was made public.
Days after the crash, Sterling Marlin received hate mail and death threats from fans who blamed him for Earnhardt's death. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. absolved Marlin of responsibility and asked everyone who loved his father to stop assigning blame for his death. On February 20, Marlin announced to the world about his responsibility:
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.
In the week following the accident, Bill Simpson, whose company—Simpson Performance Products—made the seatbelt Earnhardt wore during the race, also reported that he had also received death threats from angry fans. When asked about this, Darrell Waltrip stated that "NASCAR is an emotion sport and that all the fans love their drivers, so when something like this happens, the connection to these racers makes you want to blame somebody and that somebody had to be involved and unfortunately, the blame was placed in the wrong place here".
Team owner Richard Childress made a public pledge that a black car with a GM Goodwrench sponsorship would no longer use the number 3, honoring the color scheme and sponsor that Earnhardt had driven with since 1988. Given the No. 3 team's 12th-place finish in the race, 2000 season status as second in owner points, and presence on the Winner's Circle bonus program, Childress requested (and NASCAR approved) the team to be renumbered to 29. The renumbered team retained the same sponsor, although the car was adorned with a reversed color scheme—a 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 No. 3 team in 2000 and the Daytona 500. For the race at Atlanta, a new GM Goodwrench Service Plus paint-scheme was introduced, along with angled red stripes and a thin blue pinstripe resembling the AC Delco-sponsored Chevrolets driven in the Busch Series. From 2003 to 2006, when the GM Goodwrench Service Plus sponsorship came to an end, the No. 29 car was painted in black and silver, bearing a resemblance to the No. 3. Since the renumbering and through to the present day (March 2014), a small No. 3 decal is placed alongside the No. 29 in Earnhardt's memory and the team's legacy. On December 11, 2013, RCR announced that the No. 3 car would return to the Cup Series for Austin Dillon.
Childress's second-year Busch Series driver Kevin Harvick was tapped to replace Earnhardt beginning with the first race after his death—the Dura Lube 400, held at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, North Carolina. Hats bearing the No. 3 logo were distributed to everyone at the track in Earnhardt's memory. 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 10 finish by the next race in Las Vegas, and winning the next week in Atlanta. Jeff Gordon, the polesitter for Dura Lube 400, gave a missing man formation during the pace laps. This was a custom used in motorsports for mourning. Steve Park would win that race, but felt emotional in Victory Lane.
Harvick's win at Atlanta has since been memorable to many NASCAR fans. On the last lap of the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500, he beat Gordon by .006 seconds, the same margin that Earnhardt had won over Bobby Labonte during the same race a year before, 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 second), 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 10 finishes 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 in 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 was credited finishing 57th in the final point standings for 2001, despite competing in only one race. He also won the 2001 Most Popular Driver Award at the end of year awards' ceremony. Perennial winner 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. Dr. Steve Bohannon, NASCAR's medical expert, 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 had not broken.
The first paramedics to respond to the crash scene maintained that the seat belts had been 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 who attended to Earnhardt after the crash reported that the buckle position of Earnhardt's harness was off-center by 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 cm), 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 the seat belts—manufactured the seat belts used in nearly every NASCAR competitor's machine. Bill Simpson, the company's founder, 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.
Ed Hinton, particularly sportswriter for the Orlando Sentinel, attempted to acquire Earnhardt's autopsy records and photos for study, autopsy records normally being public documents in Florida, but Teresa Earnhardt, Earnhardt's widow, 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, who had been the medical director of CART for 22 years, and Wayne State University crash expert John Melvin also agreed with Myers' report. Bill Simpson said that the report was "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 crash. The official NASCAR report, which had cost over a million dollars and was published on August 21, 2001, concluded that Earnhardt's death was the result of a combination of factors, which 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 support (HANS) 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 non-compete clause expired, starting IMPACT! Racing Products.
After the accident, there were several safety improvements made in the sport of stock car racing.
In response to the speculation about the broken lap belt in Earnhardt's car, many teams migrated from traditional five to six-point safety harnesses.
At the time of NASCAR's accident report, there were no rules requiring drivers to wear HANS devices. NASCAR president Mike Helton stated, "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 the 2001 ARCA EasyCare 100 at Lowe's Motor Speedway resulted in the death of 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 an autopsy for Earnhardt. 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.
From June 12 to June 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 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.
In April 2002, a year after Earnhardt's death, 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.
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