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Earnhardt questions continue to linger

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 1, 2001


NASCAR officials are disputing a published report that Dale Earnhardt's seat belt was not broken when rescue workers arrived following the driver's fatal crash Feb. 18.

An Orange County firefighter and emergency medical technician told the Orlando Sentinel, in a story published Sunday, that he found Earnhardt's restraint system intact and even struggled to unlatch it during rescue attempts following the driver's last lap crash in the Daytona 500.

Tommy Propst's account contradicts what NASCAR has maintained since officials held a news conference Feb. 23 to announce Earnhardt's left lap belt "separated" and might have contributed to the driver's death.

"We're not saying anybody is lying," NASCAR chairman Bill France told the Charlotte Observer on Sunday. "He (Propst) said what he said, but he was on the outside of the car."

NASCAR officials, including president Mike Helton and Winston Cup director Gary Nelson, announced five days after Earnhardt's crash that a portion of his left lap belt was found separated upon an inspection the night of the accident. France said Sunday, however, that Nelson didn't discover the separated belt until the morning after the crash.

A court-appointed expert also examined Earnhardt's autopsy photos and concluded the driver died from a violent head-whip, not because of a broken seat belt.

The contradictions have left many questioning NASCAR's motives and ability to police itself. But most drivers and team owners in Winston Cup side with the sanctioning body.

"There's no reason for them to (mislead anybody)," Winston Cup team owner Ray Evernham told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "They don't have anything to gain by it. We need to protect our drivers. NASCAR is very interested in it. They don't want any drivers hurt, whether it's a Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon or a kid at a local short track."

Said Gordon: "Whatever they've (NASCAR) found in their investigation is what I believe in. I've never seen them do anything to not have those facts in front of us to give the teams what we need to know and look for going down the road."

RAMIFICATIONS: Texas Motor Speedway general manager Eddie Gossage said legal action against CART could be an option following CART's postponement of the Firestone Firehawk 600 on Sunday because of safety concerns.

Twenty-one of the 25 drivers scheduled to start the race reported symptoms of disorientation from extreme speeds and G forces.

The decision to postpone the inaugural event came two hours before the scheduled start time. Ticket holders -- 60,000 were expected to attend -- are being told by ticket office representatives that a total cancellation is the most likely scenario, and tickets then would be refunded.

PODIUM FINISH: It took Juan Montoya five races, but the former CART champion got his first podium finish in Formula One Sunday in Spain.

Montoya, who drives for Williams-BMW, finished second in the Spanish Grand Prix, going from 12th to sixth on the first lap and capitalizing on Mika Hakkinen's clutch failure on the last.

ODDS AND ENDS: Indy Racing League driver Dr. Jack Miller, who sustained a mild concussion in an 11-car crash during the Zmax 500 on Saturday, was released from Atlanta Medical Center on Sunday. ... NASCAR officials confiscated the helmet and head restraint worn by driver Ward Burton, who was hospitalized Sunday after a crash at the California Speedway. Burton suffered a concussion and strained tendons in his neck while wearing a new head-and-neck restraint developed by Simpson Performance Products. ... Specialists from Audi and the independent investigating group DEKRA concluded that a punctured left rear tire caused the crash that killed Italian driver Michele Alboreto last week.

-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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