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Drivers, others praise investigation

Kyle Petty, whose son Adam died in a crash, says NASCAR has done everything possible to determine what happened.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 22, 2001


Like millions of others, Jeff Burton sat home Tuesday, curious to hear NASCAR's most significant news conference ever.

"I thought it was very thorough," Burton said after NASCAR detailed the results of its investigation into Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash. "The theories that were spelled out were very believeable."

Others in the sport were just as encouraged by what they heard and saw, though questions remain about NASCAR's plans to improve safety for its drivers in the future.

"You hear all the time about what the FAA does after a plane goes down somewhere," driver Jeremy Mayfield said. "The objective is to not just find out what happened, but to come up with ways to keep that same thing from happening again.

"NASCAR has done that."

NASCAR concluded after a six-month investigation that several events played a role in Earnhardt's Feb. 18 death, including an impact with Ken Schrader's car and possibly the failure of his seat belt. Earnhardt was the fourth driver in a 10-month span -- Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper were the others -- to die from a basal skull fracture or other head injuries.

"I'm satisfied with the results," said driver Kyle Petty, Adam's father. "And I'm satisfied that NASCAR has done everything it could possibly do to determine what happened."

Among the findings were that the seat belts in Earnhardt's car were installed incorrectly, though NASCAR and the manufacturer of the seat belt are at odds over whether that caused the belt to fail. Seat belt manufacturers include installation instructions in the box, but drivers and teams often install them other ways, often for driver comfort.

"If you walk through the Winston Cup garage and look, you see a lot of different ways in doing it," Burton said. "I'm sure that all of them are right in some situations and some of them are wrong in others."

The planned implementation of crash data recorders next season is a significant step forward for NASCAR, which has resisted their use for years. The recorders are used in CART and the Indy Racing League to help determine forces exerted on a driver's body during a crash.

"I'm very pleased about the crash data recorders," Burton said. "I think it's imperative to understand and know what it is that the race cars do when they wreck and from there what the driver's bodies do after the race car wrecks or while the race car is wrecking."

NASCAR president Mike Helton said no head restraint will be required but that NASCAR would encourage drivers to wear them and help them find a comfortable fit. All but two drivers -- Jimmy Spencer and Tony Stewart -- wore a head restraint during the Pepsi 400 on Sunday at Michigan Speedway.

"I don't think mandating it is necessary," Burton said. "We live in a country that allows us freedom to do things that we do."

The presentation stopped short of addressing other issues like impact-absorbing chassis, improved seats, restraint systems and cockpits.

"It's true that they didn't come out and say, "Here's the things that we need to be doing that we aren't doing now,' " Burton said. "But they have, over the last 12 months and especially five months, given us information bit by bit and made themselves available so that we can make our cars better."

Lowe's Motor Speedway president and general manager Humpy Wheeler introduced his energy-absorbing "Humpy Bumper" in May.

Though NASCAR does not plan to require Wheeler's bumper, he was impressed with the investigation.

"It was certainly the most thoroughly investigated accident in the history of motorsports anywhere in the world," Wheeler said. "Even the investigation into the death of Formula One star Ayrton Senna several years ago didn't go to the extent of this investigation.

"We'll never know 100 percent exactly what happened, but the fact that such a thorough examination was done gives us closure."

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