The racing community has tried to come to terms with Dale Earnhardt's death in the season-opening Daytona 500 since it occurred. While some media outlets have taken abuse for exploring the issue of what occurred during the wreck, it is vital for the future safety of all competitors that the accident be studied in all facets.
Earnhardt was the third driver to die after heavy impact with a concrete wall leading with the right front of his car. Both Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin were killed in separate incidents at New Hampshire International Speedway in 2000 after impacting the wall with the right front of their cars. While some can chalk such incidents up to a freak occurrence or the lack of a head and neck restraint, I simply cannot. Sure, a head and neck restraint allows the driver to be somewhat safer in a frontal impact. But it is not the cure all to why three drivers have been killed in the past year.
The rigidity of the chassis needs to be looked at. In 1999, NASCAR mandated a stiffer steel front clip. The front corners of the chassis became less crushable in an impact. When a car hits the wall, the energy must go somewhere. More energy is now being transferred to the driver's compartment in a wreck.
In his Winston Cup career, Jeff Gordon has hit walls from all possible angles. Though, thankfully, the incidents have been few and far between. Two of his most spectacular wrecks came at Talladega Superspeedway. In 1996 he was hit from all angles in a turn one crash that saw Ricky Craven's car vault into the catch fence. In 1999 he was t-boned in the passenger side door after he made a hard right to avoid a wreck in front of him. Gordon was heading head-on into the backstretch wall when Rusty Wallace slammed into his car at 190 miles per hour. However, it is important to note that stock cars are built to crash into each other. A car is a moving object and energy dissipates upon impact. On the other hand, a concrete wall does not move. Gordon's hardest hit in a stock car came at a race at Texas Motor Speedway in 1999. Heading off turn four, Gordon's right front tire suddenly lost air pressure. He slammed the brakes and braced himself for the impact. His car hit the wall in turn four leading with the right front. The impact was hard enough to lift the rear wheels of the car off the ground for an instant. Gordon managed to walk away with bruised ribs and did not miss a race. While the multi-car wrecks might have looked bad, the hardest hit of his career was at Texas-- hitting the wall at speed with the right front.
Five days after Earnhardt's fatal accident, NASCAR held a press conference in Rockingham, North Carolina. NASCAR President Mike Helton announced that a seat belt from Earnhardt's car was found to be separated when NASCAR Technical Inspector Gary Nelson looked at the car on Sunday night after the race (Helton apologized three months later and noted that Nelson found the separated belt on Monday morning following the incident). Almost immediately the focus shifted from the safety of the cars to the viability of Simpson safety equipment. Bill Simpson has been building safety gear for race drivers for more than 25 years. He has gone as far as to set himself on fire to prove that his safety equipment saves lives. In the hours following NASCAR's press conference, Simpson issued a statement saying that if installed properly, his seat belts do not fail.
At face value it was a logical explanation to accept-- the seat belt broke and Earnhardt slammed forward in the seat. It's also a very easy explanation to accept. Except that it's not that simple to accept. In the ensuing two months the focus was on the alleged separated seat belt. A court settlement reached between Teresa Earnhardt and a national newspaper company allowed Dr. Barry Myers to view autopsy photos of Dale Earnhardt and extensive video of the crash. Myers is a biomedical engineer and an expert in neck and skull fractures. His lab at Duke University is one of few in the country that carries out extensive accident testing on the human neck, spine, and head. His report concluded that Earnhardt was killed instantly when his neck whipped violently forward after impacting the wall. The seat belt, whether it had separated or not, did not play a role in his death, according to Myers.
After Earnhardt's car came to a rest on the infield grass near turn four, the rescue workers sprung into action. Tommy Propst, a 24-year veteran firefighter, pulled the window net down from Earnhardt's car after Ken Schrader had moved away. He tugged on the belts and found them securely in place. Eventually he was able to open them and rescue efforts began.
NASCAR's investigation of the incident had begun more than two months before Propst came forward in late April to tell what occurred. NASCAR had spoken to several EMT's on the scene-- but had not spoken to Propst. When questioned, a Daytona International Speedway spokesperson said Propst's name was omitted due to an oversight. An oversight? The one EMT with the best view of what happened in the moments following the crash was left out of the investigation due to an oversight?
After hearing about death threats to Bill Simpson as a result of the alleged seat belt problem, Propst came forward. He couldn't sleep at night knowing what happened and what was being said. Simply put, it didn't add up to the truth. In his years of service as a firefighter, all of Tommy Propst's job reviews have been "exemplary" and "above average." After realizing they couldn't refute Propst's story, NASCAR claimed that perhaps he didn't quite see what he thinks he saw. And then the lawyers got involved. The NASCAR legal team, made up of lawyers from a number of prestigious firms, grilled Propst for a few hours. He never wavered in what he saw and what occurred. His recollections of the incident were as clear two and a half months after the crash as they were in the late afternoon sun in February at Daytona.
NASCAR legend Darrell Waltrip has publicly applauded the firefighter for coming forward with the information. Waltrip also applauded Dr. Myers' expert findings. Whether he meant to do so or not, Waltrip struck a blow against NASCAR because Propst and Myers both contradict NASCAR's version of what might have occurred in the wreck. And it contradicts what some have been led to believe.
The behind the scenes workings in Volusia County have "NASCAR" written all over them. In the hours following the crash, no police officer was allowed access to Earnhardt's car. Normal protocol in Volusia County was not followed in the Earnhardt case. NASCAR was running things in the hours following the crash-- for better or worse.
Previous NASCAR investigations focused on internal matters with Bill France and his cohorts as the judge and jury. Though at times it was more like a kangaroo court. Need an example? Tim Richmond in February 1988. In the Earnhardt case there is more public knowledge available than NASCAR is comfortable with-- and it's showing. At Richmond they met with the Winston Cup and Busch drivers to update them on some of the reports that were circulating. They steadfastly held to the idea that the alleged separated seat belt was a major factor. After all, it couldn't be the rigidity of the chassis that has been killing these drivers... could it?
Helton read a prepared statement in which he said there was no "cover up" regarding the investigation. But after he changed the time on when Gary Nelson found the alleged separated seat belt, an element of doubt had to be raised. While NASCAR shouldn't fear an insurrection, the national media, as well as the sponsors, are watching their investigative habits more keenly than ever before. After all, this isn't about an oversized engine or an illegal manifold-- this is life and death. I believe that NASCAR isn't withholding any information as it pertains to the Earnhardt crash. But by miscalculating vital time frames and making unproven accusations, they're losing whatever trust they built up with the public. And they're losing it faster than a lap around Bristol Motor Speedway. Sure, everybody trusts Mike Helton. After all, everybody wants to get through tech inspection each week at the track.
At best it seems that NASCAR is nowhere near prepared to deal with the kind of investigation required in a crime scene to ascertain the facts. After all, they are versed in fast cars and marketing-- not in crime scenes and physics. A rookie police officer knows to speak with everyone at the accident scene. Surely the EMT with the best view of Earnhardt's seat belts would be interviewed. But nobody called on Tommy Propst. After all, it was an oversight. After all, this is NASCAR's investigation. And therein lies the fundamental problem. Simply put, NASCAR should not be entrusted with the assignment. Having NASCAR conduct this investigation is akin to having your local butcher spearhead an investigation into tainted meat products-- they're neither qualified to be in that position nor are their interests independent.
NASCAR expects to conclude its investigation in August. It is unclear whether The Warren Commission (oops, I mean "NASCAR") will consult with any independent medical experts to determine what affect a broken belt might have had. But Dr. Myers has weighed in on the subject. While NASCAR will have difficulty refuting Dr. Myers' claims, they will no doubt find members of the medical community who can offer differing opinions. Dollar bills always talk the loudest. While I am skeptical of the type of findings NASCAR will come up with, I sincerely hope they can uncover something that will make racing safer in the future. Anything less than that should not be tolerated.
This being said, nothing that comes out of this investigation is going to bring Dale Earnhardt back. He was killed in a tragic crash on the racetrack. While death is never an accepted part of racing, it is part of the risk. The drivers are keenly aware of the risks associated with their sport. It's not a game-- it's a matter of life and death.
As such, the Earnhardt crash must be learned from. Whether it can be attributed to a rigid chassis design or an equipment failure is a moot point. It must be learned from to prevent a similar tragedy in the future. Whether NASCAR chooses to go back to a softer frame on the chassis is unclear. But if they're looking for why Adam, Kenny, and Dale aren't on the racetrack anymore, that's a good starting point. Hopefully the advancements in driver safety and chassis design will be the legacy of the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Tommy Propst's life has not been the same since he came forward to tell what he saw in the moments following the crash. But he was tired. Tired of not sleeping at night. Tired of knowing what he saw and not being asked about it. Tired of hearing about death threats to Bill Simpson. Tired of hearing accusations from NASCAR about what occurred. Tired of knowing that he saw something nobody else did. Tommy Propst was just tired. At the end of the day, an honest man's pillow is his peace of mind.
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