- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 22, 2001

ATLANTA Grim-faced men in suits came to a hotel yesterday to share their findings on the crash that killed stock car racing's biggest star.

For appearances' sake, they could have saved the time and effort. Most of these conclusions were reached five days after Dale Earnhardt died.

A broken seat belt took the brunt of the blame. There would be no immediate changes in the way NASCAR goes about the business of protecting its most precious commodity the guys who are willing to drive at nearly 200 mph.

"We are not going to react just for the sake of reacting," NASCAR president Mike Helton said, repeating the words that could be the governing body's motto. "We're going to understand all ramifications of a change before we make it."

We've heard it all before. On Feb. 23 a gray, chilly morning in Rockingham, N.C. Helton and Co. convened in a tent outside North Carolina Motor Speedway to reveal their smoking gun.

The lap belt in Earnhardt's No. 3 car had broken on the left side, they said. A doctor loyal to NASCAR even went so far as to claim that Earnhardt probably died from his chin striking the steering wheel a conclusion that has since been refuted.

Six months and more than $1 million later, Helton and two safety experts released a 3-inch-thick report and faced a media horde numbering in the hundreds, all eager to hear the outcome of the most exhaustive study in the sport's history.

James Raddin, an injury-causation specialist best known for his work on the bombing of a Pan Am jet over Scotland, said there was no way to conclude exactly what caused the death of Earnhardt, who slammed into the wall at around 160 mph on the final lap of Daytona 500.

He cited a confluence of events: Earnhardt colliding with Ken Schrader's car, his body rolling to the right side before plunging nearly head-on into the wall, the seat belt ripping apart near the buckle, the side of Earnhardt's helmet striking the steering wheel and slamming back into the seat.

The only non-disputable fact was that Earnhardt died of a massive fracture at the base of his skull.

"We have a conclusion here, but the conclusion is not the easiest to report," Raddin said. "Maybe it would be easier if we could say, 'This did it' or 'That did it."'

Which brings up the obvious question: What is NASCAR going to do to prevent it from happening again?

Helton said computer devices similar to the "black boxes" used on airplanes would be installed in the cars for 2002. He said a full-time medical director would come on board by the season-opening Daytona 500 next year.

What about mandating a device such as the HANS (Head and Neck Support)? What about softer walls? What about crushable bumpers that can absorb more of the blow in a high-speed crash?

Not yet. Not yet. Not yet.

"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. "This activity is enhanced more than ever before, but it's still going to take time. And," here he spoke those words again, "we're still not going to react just for the sake of reacting."

In all fairness, there are unseen ramifications in every potential safety improvement. For instance, crushable bumpers may reduce the G-forces in a high-speed crash but may make it more difficult for drivers to control their cars in the sort of fender-benders that are far more prevalent on the Winston Cup circuit.

"Those things are being studied," Raddin said. "But we need to be very cautious as to how they're implemented so we don't try to fix the last accident and end up creating a number of other accidents in things that are being handled very well right now."

Time and time again, the focus of the investigation returned to the seat belt.

"I'm a little surprised they blamed as much of the accident on the seat belt as they did," said Jim Downing, whose suburban Atlanta company manufactures the HANS.

Bill Simpson, who manufactured the seat belt, continues to insist that Earnhardt installed his restraint system improperly, a charge backed up by Rusty Wallace and other drivers.

While conceding that the seat belt failed, Simpson also says it was still intact through at least part of the crash. If not, how did Earnhardt wind up with an abrasion on his left hip?

Downing, with an admittedly prejudiced view, is still convinced the HANS would have saved Earnhardt. Likewise, he was not surprised in the least that NASCAR is still balking at making that sort of device mandatory.

"They move way too deliberately to do that," he said.

The news conference format did little to dispel the notion that NASCAR is a secretive fiefdom concerned only with selling tickets. After a sometimes-numbing presentation lasting more than an hour, Helton and the experts took 20 questions in a half hour, then headed for the airport.

"While we may have fallen short at times in our communication, it is my strong believe that we always have tried to do the right thing in the area of safety," Helton said.

Kyle Petty, whose son Adam was one of four NASCAR drivers killed in a 10-month period, said the governing body is doing a better job of passing on information to the teams.

"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," Petty said. "I guess the public heard some new things today, and maybe we heard a few new things, too.

"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."

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