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NASCAR still seeks answers

A track president says an expert's report on Dale Earnhardt's death only lends a shroud of "further mystery.''

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2001


Humpy Wheeler learned the lesson 40 years ago when auto racing dealt with a succession of on-track tragedies.

Death comes in clusters.

"It's because something isn't working," the Lowe's Motor Speedway president said Tuesday. "It's up to us as an industry to get it to where we can stop it. We've just got to stop it."

Dr. Barry Myers, a Duke University crash expert who reviewed Dale Earnhardt's autopsy photos, issued a report Monday disputing a NASCAR doctor's theory that a broken seat belt contributed to the driver's death.

Myers was appointed by a court to review the photos in an agreement between Teresa Earnhardt, the racer's widow, and the Orlando Sentinel. He indicated that Earnhardt died when his head whipped forward so violently in a crash at Daytona that his skull fractured. That injury killed NASCAR racers Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper in accidents last year. "It shrouds (Earnhardt's death) in further mystery to me," Wheeler said of the report. "I'm sure that it's left most of the people that do this for a living every day with a continued big question mark. ... Why did that accident cause a basal skull fracture?"

There are lingering questions because Dr. Steve Bohannon, head of emergency medical services at Daytona International Speedway, said Feb. 23 that Earnhardt's left lap belt broke and that it might have contributed to his death. Bohannon theorized five days after the crash that Earnhardt's body shifted forward and to the right and his unprotected chin struck the steering wheel hard enough to cause the basal skull fracture.

"Certainly no one can say for sure what would've happened (if the belt held)," Bohannon said at the time. "If his restraint system, his belts, had held, he would've had a much better chance of survival."

But Bohannon was not very qualified to make such a statement, experts familiar with race car crashes said.

"Doctors don't understand how injuries occur quite often," said Dr. John Melvin, a Detroit-based biomechanical engineer and crash expert. "They know how to treat them, but they don't really get schooled in how they occur.

"That's my field -- biomechanics ofenergy -- and it happens to be Dr. Myers' field. He's an M.D., but he's also an engineer who has studied these things. It's a very specialized field that basically isn't taught to doctors in medical school."

NASCAR president Mike Helton, in a statement Tuesday afternoon, said Myers' report did not oppose theories the sanctioning body or Bohannon had presented.

"Since the Daytona 500, NASCAR has made clear that we will not suggest or speculate on the circumstances surrounding Dale Earnhardt's accident until our study is complete," Helton said. "No one from NASCAR has ever suggested what may have happened in this accident other than to say in our preliminary investigation we found issues of concern involving the occupant restraint system."

Myers' findings might be added to NASCAR's safety review. The sanctioning body announced Monday it had commissioned a complex accident-reconstruction review but results were not expected before August.

"I don't think anybody's going to wait on that. I'm not," Wheeler said. "How Dale Earnhardt died, we would all like to know exactly to the last tenth. We all want to know that. "But we know how the other three drivers died. And we know that (Earnhardt) did have a similar injury. We've just got to attack that every day, and we don't have to wait for things to come out."

Safety devices, most notably the HANS, are available to help prevent basal skull fractures.

CART director of medical affairs Dr. Steve Olvey said studies have shown that the HANS (head and neck support) can decrease the energy loading on a driver's head and neck by as much as 40-60 percent in some crashes.

CART requires drivers to wear the device on all oval tracks this season. NASCAR does not require the HANS, though several drivers have ordered it or begun wearing it since Earnhardt's death.

"It became very apparent this was the only thing we had," said Olvey, a University of Miami neurosurgical specialist.

Wheeler believes that more than the HANS is needed to prevent another death.

"I think it's going to take an improvement in seats, which there is a lot of work going on, and the six-point belt," he said. "Plus some energy absorption material in the right front of the car. That's the area that has tremendous potential. "Our whole objective should very strongly be to go with the mission of not having another death in racing, to make it something that we don't ever have to deal with again. That should be our goal."

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