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Q & A

By MIKE STEPHENSON

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 22, 2001


Q : Why did Earnhardt's death get so much attention?

A: He was the fourth driver on one of NASCAR's top series to die on the track in a span of about 10 months. Earnhardt was the most famous among them, having won seven Winston Cup championships and 76 races, and he died on the last lap of NASCAR's most famous race, the Daytona 500. But beyond his ability, Earnhardt was a charismatic and marketable figure who inspired fans to love him or hate him with his gruff, hard-driving style that lead to the nickname Intimidator.

Q : Earnhardt drove into a wall at about 160 mph. What was the dispute about how he died?

A: All four of the drivers died of head injuries, most caused by a head-whipping motion as they hit a wall. In Earnhardt's case, NASCAR found that his seat belt had broken and suggested that might have contributed to his death. The Orlando Sentinel sought his autopsy photos to consult an outside expert. After a court battle over access to the photos, a court-appointed expert concluded Earnhardt died of a basal skull fracture, the same injury that killed the other three drivers. The expert said Earnhardt's death was not related to the broken seat belt. NASCAR conducted its own investigation, which concluded the seat belt failure might have contributed. It said Earnhardt's crash was different from the others because of a side impact with another car, which changed the position of Earnhardt's body.

Q : So what role did the seat belt play?

A: That's a matter of dispute. NASCAR's experts say it might have contributed to the death and that they are unsure why it failed. Attorneys for Bill Simpson, who was head of the company that manufactured the belt, say the belt failed because Earnhardt installed it improperly.

Q : How much did the investigation cost?

A: NASCAR won't say, but spokesman Jim Hunter said "we're well into seven figures."

Q : How many people participated?

A: More than 50.

Q : What is NASCAR going to do as a result of the investigation?

A: NASCAR says it will recommend drivers use some type of head and neck restraint device and work with them to find a comfortable fit but not mandate that they use one. It also will hire experts to study safety harnesses, install crash-data recorders, commonly referred to as "black boxes", in NASCAR cars by the beginning of next season and create the position of a full-time "medical liaison" -- a job that will entail maintaining medical records on drivers and help in the coordination of medical care of NASCAR participants. Also, a full-time position will be created to oversee future accident investigations. -- Compiled by Mike Stephenson.

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