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How Earnhardt died

The report on the NASCAR driver's fatal crash says a combination of factors led to his death - most notably a torn lap belt.

[AP photo]
Dr. James H. Raddin Jr., director of Biodynamic Research Corporation, displays a slide of the frayed seat belt from Dale Earnhardt's car.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 22, 2001



Click for graphic
ATLANTA -- The question that has dogged the investigation of Dale Earnhardt's death since February remains even after a voluminous report released by NASCAR Tuesday:

What happened to his seat belt?

A team of independent experts hired by the stock-car sanctioning body concluded that Earnhardt, 49, one of the sport's biggest stars, died of a basilar skull fracture caused by a blow to the back of the head. The injury, they said, was the result of a combination of factors, including a separated left lap belt.

The report contradicts the finding of Dr. Barry Myers, a court-appointed expert who determined that Earnhardt's skull fracture was the result of violent head-whip caused by the forces of his black No. 3 Chevrolet crashing nearly head-on into the Turn 4 wall at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 18. Myers said in a statement that he stands by his conclusion.

The report did not call into question the rigid construction of Winston Cup race cars or whether their front ends absorb adequate energy in crashes.

As for the future, NASCAR will not make immediate changes to the cars or the tracks but has commissioned a study of the seat-belt restraint system while continuing to recommend drivers wear head-and-neck safety devices.

"We are still not going to react for the sake of reacting," NASCAR president Mike Helton said.

The experts hired by NASCAR used diagrams, photographs of Earnhardt's car and seat belt, computer crash simulations and video footage of the accident to walk step-by-step through their investigation and conclusions. The presentation at the Hyatt Regency hotel lasted 70 minutes.

"It would certainly be easier if we could say, "This did it,' or "That did it,' but what we have is . . . a number of factors in which the timing came together to produce this result," said Dr. James Raddin, director of Biodynamic Research Corp.

According to Raddin, who analyzed the biomechanics of the accident, three factors contributed to Earnhardt's death:

A side-impact collision with the No. 36 Pontiac driven by Ken Schrader.

Forward movement of Earnhardt's open-faced helmet that left the back of his head exposed.

The separation of the left lap belt upon impact with the wall.

As Earnhardt's car turned up the banking it was struck on the right side by the No. 36 car, which sent his car into the wall at a more severe angle. During the impact with Schrader, Earnhardt's head was forced down and to the right, and his helmet moved forward on his head.

So, Earnhardt already was out of place when, four-tenths of a second later, his car struck the wall at about 158 mph. Raddin said the lap belt tore apart during impact, though he could not pinpoint the exact sequence.

Unrestrained by the left lap belt, Earnhardt was thrust forward and to the right. When his body began to rebound back to the left, Raddin theorized, the exposed lower portion of the back of his head struck either the rim of the steering wheel or the back of the seat, causing the fatal skull fracture.

Photos showed the steering wheel's outer rim was bent by about 5 inches on one side.

"My family and I appreciate NASCAR's thorough report into Dale's accident," said Earnhardt's widow, Teresa. "The findings released today are based on the most comprehensive information available and appear to be consistent with previously released medical reports and our own understanding."

The failure of the lap belt, originally cited at a Feb. 23 news conference, remains a mystery.

After examining the belt, Raddin concluded the separation was a result of "dumping," a concept NASCAR officials said they were unaware of before the investigation.

Raddin said the adjuster on the belt became cockeyed, in this case the lower end moved forward, and the webbing of the strap bunched to the lower end. When a belt "dumps," greater stress is placed on fewer fibers and there is increased risk of tearing.

Raddin showed diagrams illustrating that Earnhardt's five-point occupant restraint system was not installed according to the specifications of the manufacturer, Simpson Performance Products, but said the variations did not cause the belt to fail. According to his study, the adjuster was appropriately positioned across the width of the belt before impact.

"It separated under load and it allowed additional forward motion," Raddin said. ". . . It was not a result of the mispositioning based upon the findings that I showed you with the way the lock bar was initially positioned straight across the belt."

Unlike most drivers, Earnhardt drove in a slightly reclined position with his head to the left. For the past several years, he requested his left lap belt be attached as much as 8 inches behind the specified point beside the seat.

And rather than attach the shoulder harnesses to a bar directly behind the shoulders, Earnhardt preferred the straps be wrapped over that bar and attached to another bar lower behind the seat. This configuration, which required the straps to be longer than normal, would have allowed for greater forward displacement in an accident because the webbing of the strap stretches under force.

After the presentation, two floors down in a smaller hotel conference room, sat racing safety pioneer Bill Simpson, founder of the company that produced the restraint system worn by Earnhardt.

Simpson, 61, was flanked by two lawyers and three experts from Accident Reconstruction Analysis, from Raleigh, N.C., which conducted a review of the restraint system.

According to Accident Reconstruction Analysis president Charles Manning, the improper installation of Earnhardt's lap belt severely compromised the belt's effectiveness, reducing its load capacity from 5,800 pounds of pressure to 1,900.

"We felt clearly that (NASCAR) didn't go far enough in dealing with the facts," said Jim Voyles, an attorney representing Simpson Performance Products. "That the seat belt installed in Mr. Earnhardt's car did not follow manufacturer's recommendations and that was a fact we believe was critical."

Simpson, who recently resigned as president of the company he founded, said through his attorneys that he repeatedly warned Earnhardt about the danger of improperly installing the restraint system.

Hoping to be exonerated of blame, Simpson was disappointed with NASCAR's report.

"I thought NASCAR would be more forthright," Simpson said.

The same presentation was given to drivers and team owners in NASCAR's three majors series -- Winston Cup, Busch Grand National and Craftsman Truck -- in Charlotte, N.C., Tuesday morning. Dale Earnhardt Jr. did not attend, but a NASCAR spokesman said Helton has privately gone over the report with him. Earnhardt Jr. plans a news conference today in Darlington, S.C.

Richard Childress, Earnhardt's team owner, hoped NASCAR's report would bring closure to the incident.

"It is now time to move on," Childress said in a statement. "This has been a very painful process for a lot of us and I hope today's statement can bring some closure."

* * *

COMPLETE REPORT: To download the 324-page findings or read a transcript of Tuesday's presentation, visit www.nascar.com/.

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