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Car design target of report

NASCAR won’t blame seat belts in Dale Earnhardt’s death - little comfort now for Bill Simpson.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 11, 2001



[AP photo]
Dale Earnhardt died in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500.


Graphic:
Last lap at Daytona: the crash and the aftermath

Bill Simpson was standing at the counter of an Indianapolis dry cleaning store Friday morning when a man he never had seen before walked up to him and asked a blunt question.

"Aren't you the guy who made the seat belt that killed Dale Earnhardt?" the man said.

While that may forever be Simpson's legacy, it is not, apparently, deserved.

NASCAR's investigation into Earnhardt's fatal crash determined the seven-time Winston Cup champion died of a basilar skull fracture caused by violent head whip when his car hit the wall head-on Feb. 18 on the final lap of the Daytona 500, the Orlando Sentinel reported Friday.

According to the Sentinel, a report of the findings does not blame Earnhardt's seat belt. Five days after the crash, NASCAR said the belt broke in the accident and might have contributed to Earnhardt's death. The report cites the design of Winston Cup race cars, which do not absorb a sufficient amount of energy in front-end crashes, the Sentinel said.

In a statement issued Friday, NASCAR officials declined to comment until their report is released Aug. 21 in Atlanta.

Dr. Steve Olvey, CART's medical director, has criticized NASCAR in the past, but praised the sanctioning body's efforts to thoroughly investigate Earnhardt's accident.

"I really applaud NASCAR for launching such a detailed investigation," said Olvey, who did not participate. "It's my understanding that it's very similar to what the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) does with an airplane crash. They're looking at every minute detail of the crash to really come up with a complete description of the accident."

The safety-issue fallout from Earnhardt's death, the fourth among NASCAR drivers attributed to basilar skull fractures in a 14-month span, is two-fold.

While the reputation of Simpson, a safety pioneer who devoted 44 years to protecting drivers, apparently has been needlessly tarnished, the need to make stock cars safer in head-on crashes finally is being addressed.

Four significant safety devices are in various stages of implementation and testing: head and neck support devices are worn by a majority of Winston Cup drivers and more are using six-point harnesses, and development of an energy-absorbing bumper and a cocoonlike driver's seat are nearly complete.

"The combination of an impact-absorbing material in the front bumper, the six-point seat belt, the head restraint and the better seats are going to solve this problem almost completely," said H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, president of Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte and among those developing the absorbent front bumper. "Then we can go another 20 years without having the cluster of accidents we've had."

Busch Grand National driver Adam Petty and Winston Cup driver Kenny Irwin were killed weeks apart last summer at New Hampshire International Speedway and Craftsman Truck driver Tony Roper died in October at Texas.

Since Earnhardt's death, nearly 75 percent of Winston Cup drivers have begun using some type of head and neck support device, either the HANS or the Hutchens, intended to counteract head whip by keeping the neck aligned with the spine.

Six drivers wearing head and neck support devices -- Jeff Gordon, Ward Burton, Michael Waltrip, Roy "Buckshot" Jones, Elton Sawyer and Earnhardt teammate Mike Skinner -- have walked away from front-end crashes conducive to head whip.

NASCAR, however, has not mandated their use. Most notable among the drivers who do not wear a head and neck support device is Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Though the six-point harness, which offers greater support than a five-point harness by adding a second strap between the driver's legs, was available before the season-opening Daytona 500, more drivers are wearing one since Earnhardt's death.

The idea for an energy-absorbing front bumper came to Wheeler in the days after Irwin's death. Work on the "Humpy Bumper" is nearly complete and General Motors is looking into the structure of the front of the car as well.

In the 2 feet of mostly empty space between the nose and engine block, only the radiator and some lightweight bars to support body work provide crush resistence. After the front of the car crushes quickly, the heavy engine block resists too suddenly, transferring tremendous energy to the rigid steel roll cage and, ultimately, the driver's body.

"There's nothing between the right front fender and the front frame and engine except air," Wheeler said. "Our whole idea is to put energy absorbing material in there to knock the G-forces of a right front hit out. By the time the energy got to the driver it would not be lethal or even (make the driver) injury-prone."

Wheeler is working with Lew Composite in Las Vegas, which has spent more than $2-million on the design of an impact-absorbing front bumper. Wheeler said the bumper will be crash-tested on four to six Winston Cup cars in the next three weeks.

If the tests, including a wind tunnel test to safeguard against potential negative effects, are positive, Wheeler envisions having the bumper on race cars, assuming NASCAR approves it, for the Oct. 7 race at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

As for the area immediately surrounding the driver, Winston Cup drivers got their first look in July, during test sessions at Indianapolis Speedway, at a cocoonlike seat being designed by Ford team owner Cal Wells, in cooperation with NASCAR.

Wells, who came to NASCAR from CART, declined to comment Friday, but drivers' initial reactions were positive. The seat is made of a stronger but more forgiving carbon fiber than the aluminum seats NASCAR has used for years.

"It's real nice and it's definitely safer," driver Rusty Wallace told the Indianapolis Star. "I can't wait for NASCAR to let me give it a whirl."

Last week, Ford formally recommended to NASCAR that drivers begin using the composite seats.

NASCAR also is studying other safety measures, such as energy absorbing walls, the use of black box recorders similar to those used in airplanes and the addition of a specialized traveling medical team such as those employed by other major series. It is not known whether these issues will be included in the Aug. 21 report.

The investigation results, as reported by the Sentinel, support conclusions made in April by Dr. Barry Myers, an independent expert at Duke University. Myers was appointed by the court to examine Earnhardt's autopsy report and photos as part of a settlement between the Sentinel and Earnhardt's widow, Teresa.

Myers determined Earnhardt's head would have whipped violently forward and down regardless of whether the seat belt broke during the crash. Based on bruising to Earnhardt's lower-left abdomen, Myers concluded the belt did its job.

But four months after Myers' findings were announced, Simpson continues to be identified by strangers on the street as the man responsible for the racing legend's death.

"They've taken 44 years of my work and flushed it down the toilet," Simpson said of NASCAR officials, who he believes made him a scapegoat in the days after the accident. "That's pretty hard to retract. Only if they apologize to my company and to me, that would be the only way to repair it."

Simpson, 61, resigned last month from Simpson Performance Products, the company he founded in 1959 (four years ago he sold a controlling share to Carousel Capital). Simpson cited the stress of waking up each morning and asking himself, "What do I have to do to survive this day?" as indefinitely driving him from his lifelong work.

"If I decide to come back it will be with stuff that will raise the bar a couple of notches," said Simpson, who planned to attend the Indy Racing League event this weekend in Kentucky. "I'm not so sure I'll ever be welcomed back at NASCAR and, quite frankly, I really don't care."

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