Commentary

Earnhardt's death a watershed moment

Originally Published: February 7, 2011
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Dale Earnhardt's death devastated NASCAR, but may also have saved it.

He resisted the very safety innovations that could have saved his life, and yet "transformed the sport and saved everybody else's life," says Dr. John Melvin, widely considered world motor racing's foremost authority on driver safety.

"Without any changes, drivers would still be dying in NASCAR," Melvin says. "But I don't think we'd be seeing NASCAR right now, quite frankly. I think Congress would have gotten involved at some point."

NASCAR would be finished by now? Done?

"I believe so," Melvin says. "You cannot continue to kill your heroes."

One was enough. Especially that one.

"NASCAR has lost its greatest driver ever," then-NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. said in a statement issued on the evening of Feb. 18, 2001, the darkest night in NASCAR history.

Earnhardt had died in the last turn of the last lap of the Daytona 500.

Since that day, "what has evolved here, as NASCAR stepped up to the issues they were facing 10 years ago, is that they are now, I think, the most proactive sanctioning body in racing," Melvin says.

Without any changes, drivers would still be dying in NASCAR. But I don't think we'd be seeing NASCAR right now, quite frankly. I think Congress would have gotten involved at some point. ... I believe so. You cannot continue to kill your heroes.

-- Dr. John Melvin, safety expert and NASCAR consultant

Since that day, "We've had a lot of guys hit just as hard or harder," Melvin continues. "And nobody died."

"In reaction to Dale Earnhardt's death, I think NASCAR rethought how they managed safety," says Dr. Robert Hubbard, inventor of the HANS head-restraint device and a retired professor of biomechanical engineering at Michigan State. "And they've become very proactive."

Not even the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), governing body of the ultra-sophisticated Formula One series, has an actual safety research and development center.

NASCAR does.

And, says Hubbard, in all of motor racing, "NASCAR is among the best, if not the best, accident investigator."

The "black box" crash recorders NASCAR resisted a decade ago have been developed by NASCAR engineers into "blue boxes" -- smaller, more durable, more reliable.

Research now is focused mainly on refining all the life-saving innovations introduced since Earnhardt's death: protective seats, seat placement, better belt systems, head restraint, energy-dissipating "soft walls," crushable materials in the cars, and evolution of the roll cages and the cars themselves …

And it's all a relative intellectual breeze now.

"It's better from an engineering standpoint to do the work without the specter of a fatality hanging over your head," says Mike Fisher, NASCAR's managing director of research and development. "It allows us to focus on some details without the pressure of, 'Oh, my God, we've got a problem we know we've got to fix, and every weekend we're at risk if we don't fix it.'

"That's a different engineering environment to work in. It was very stressful. Steve Peterson felt a lot of that."


Steve Peterson, who died in 2008, was NASCAR's only formally trained safety engineer in 2001. That winter, the mode was "Oh, my God" and getting worse.

Melvin is now a paid consultant to NASCAR, but 10 years ago he was a warily received outsider, an internationally renowned scientist entering a world where good ol' boy ingenuity was valued over academics.

Melvin, a former University of Michigan professor and senior research engineer with General Motors, was, by January 2001, a safety consultant to most of the world's major racing series except NASCAR.

But by that winter, the need for Melvin's expertise was felt direly by both manufacturers in Cup racing at the time, Ford and General Motors … and by at least one NASCAR official, Peterson.

During Daytona testing, "Steve had me talk to the drivers in January before the Earnhardt fatality," Melvin recalls. "That was the first time these guys had seen the videos of what really goes on with a driver in a crash, in sled testing."

Many were open to learning and receptive to Melvin's reiteration of the manufacturers' plea to every driver: Please wear Hubbard's HANS device. Please.

Earnhardt's reaction?

"Uh," Melvin hesitates, measures his words. "He was too busy to come."


By that February, Hubbard was visiting garage stalls all around Earnhardt's at Daytona -- Dale Jarrett's … Jeff Burton's … Bill Elliott's …

But not Earnhardt's.

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt
HHP/Harold HinsonSafety experts at the time said they learned quickly that their presence wasn't welcome in Dale Earnhardt's garage stall.

"I learned pretty early on not to go where I wasn't invited," Hubbard recalls of the time when drivers were only beginning to understand his life-saving invention. "People have to realize you have a problem before you can solve it.

"And I was told that Earnhardt didn't want to talk to me."

In the previous nine months, three NASCAR drivers -- Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr. and Tony Roper -- had died of the same injury with the same cause: basilar skull fracture, from violent whipping of their unrestrained heads during crashes.

And so, "Ten years ago, we were going from race to race with the HANS device," says Tom Gideon, then General Motors' top safety engineer and now NASCAR's director of safety research and development.

Following Irwin's death at Loudon, N.H., in July 2000, engineers from Ford and GM had been quietly urging drivers to wear Hubbard's revolutionary HANS.

The manufacturers would even pay the $1,200 for each device, if the drivers would only wear them.

But it wasn't the money. Many drivers thought the HANS would restrict their movements in, and quick exit from, the cars.

Earnhardt didn't just typify the resistance, he led it.

"I think there was, you could say, an old-school reluctance to listen to smarty pants experts with academic training," Hubbard says. "Some of the early engineers [working on the race cars] got the same kind of deaf ear. It was resistance to knowledge that wasn't sort of garage wisdom."

Asked in the summer of 2000 what he thought of the HANS, Earnhardt had replied, "I got no idea what it is."

That seemed strange, considering that the manufacturers' urgent appeals to drivers, individually, had already started.

By January of '01, "GM had already been working him [Earnhardt], trying to get him to loosen up, and he made that famous quote about the kerosene rags," says Melvin.

Publicly, amidst growing concern among drivers for their safety, Earnhardt had advised those who were afraid to stay home, and "tie a kerosene rag around your ankles so the ants won't crawl up and eat that candy ass."

Earnhardt mistrusted the HANS, reckoning it could do more harm than good.

"He resisted it, basically," says Melvin. "Didn't feel it was appropriate. GM tried. Awfully hard."

To one reporter, Earnhardt had referred to the HANS as "that damn noose."

Earnhardt had shown some interest in energy-dissipating "soft walls" to mitigate crashes: "I'd rather wait 15 or 20 minutes for them to clean up that mess than for them to clean me off the wall," he said of concerns that soft walls would fragment and the cleanup would delay the race.

But for other major safety innovations on the horizon -- head restraints, cocoon-like seats that would amount to survival cells for drivers and redesigned belt systems -- Earnhardt had little or no use.

He rigged his belts as he felt best, used the seat that he deemed best, wouldn't wear a head restraint … wouldn't even wear a full-face helmet.


On Daytona 500 morning of 2001, Ken Schrader, Earnhardt's longtime close friend, typified the majority attitude of the old school drivers who rigged safety equipment according to their personal experience.

Schrader repeatedly shook his head at several questions asked by a reporter, mainly about the HANS, until he was asked, simply, "Why?"

"I'm just comfortable with my stuff," he said.

When the green flag dropped to start the race, only seven of the 43 drivers were wearing HANS restraints.

The old school prevailed.

For one more day.

With about 20 laps left in the race, Earnhardt, in his Richard Childress-owned black No. 3, began blocking, running interference for two cars ahead of him: His son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Michael Waltrip, both in Dale Earnhardt Inc. Chevrolets.

[+] EnlargeHans Device
Mark Thompson/Getty ImagesThe HANS device became standard equipment throughout racing in the wake of Dale Earnhardt's death.

It was all going precisely as the elder Earnhardt had planned prior to the race, according to Waltrip. The two DEI cars would break away, with the master -- the Intimidator -- running interference from behind them, keeping other packs of cars off them.

When they took the white flag, with Waltrip leading and Earnhardt Jr. second, "The race was over," Waltrip says. He knew at that point that no one could pass him.

In the fourth turn on the final lap, "Dale didn't need to cut Sterling [Marlin] off" for the DEI cars to win, Waltrip says. "That was just Dale trying to race to get third. I think when Sterling got beside him, it was like, 'Uh uh! It's one-two-three today …"

"He needed to make just one more block."

In the aftermath, many fans initially would blame Marlin for bumping Earnhardt and triggering the fatal crash.

But Earnhardt "tried to squeeze Sterling off," Waltrip said. "Sterling was there and Dale tried to cut him off, and it turned Dale into the wall. It's just that simple."

The black No. 3 veered right, up toward the outside wall, about to hit head-on. But then the car was bumped by the onrushing car of Schrader, so that the No. 3's angle of approach to the wall changed slightly. It hit on the right front.

At first glance, the wreck looked so minor that the only ramifications might be Earnhardt's missing out on a third-place finish behind his two protégés.

But John Melvin knew immediately that this could be serious: Earnhardt had hit at the "one o'clock angle" biomechanical engineers considered so deadly.


To this day, few in the media, the public or even the medical profession understand exactly what basilar skull fracture is or how it can occur.

"The medical people still don't understand it," says Melvin, who has conducted decades of research and sled testing. "But we have our own literature of the biomechanics of injury."

Basilar skull fracture is not just a fracture at the base of the skull.

It involves the cracking of a small, circular bone about the size of a quarter, the foramen magnum, at the bottom rear of the skull, where the bone and cartilage are weakest.

The hole in the doughnut-shaped foramen magnum is a critical passage way. Through it run the two interior carotid arteries, which branch off from the exterior carotids in the neck. Also through that hole runs part of the brain stem.

Cracking of the little bone can cut the interior carotid arteries, and the sufferer can bleed to death in a matter of seconds.

There also can be damage to the areas of the brain stem that control breathing and heart rate.

And although basilar skull fracture can be caused by a blunt blow, it also can occur without any contact of the head with another object.

Melvin based his research on sled testing done by the Navy in the 1970s and '80s with monkeys, where the sled was run at high speed and then stopped suddenly.

"They demonstrated that if you restrain the torso really well and don't restrain the head, then you're either going to pull the head off the neck or you're going to break the base of the skull," Melvin says.

When a race car stops suddenly, inertia tries to keep the body moving forward, but the shoulder harness restrains it. Then the unrestrained head, a heavy part of the body at about 12 pounds, becomes essentially a cannon ball fired forward by G-forces.

In laymen's terms, forces are trying to tear the head off the body. The strain of the violent whip of the head tears the weak and fragile back of the skull, including the foramen magnum.

Hubbard began developing the HANS in the 1980s in collaboration with his brother-in-law, sports car driver Jim Downing, who had seen friends killed by basilar skull fracture with no apparent blows to the head.

"My initial thinking," says Hubbard, "was that the injury is due to the fact that if the head is unsupported, it moves relative to the torso and you get excessive tension in the neck, which causes the base of the skull to pull apart."

Melvin had been Hubbard's academic mentor, and he was already onto the neck-loading concept, so they began collaborating on sled testing of the early HANS.

But the early models were too big and restrictive for the comfort of race drivers. Kyle Petty wore one in the 1980s but had to give it up when Cup cars evolved to create less cockpit space and smaller windows, making quick exit from the car difficult while wearing the HANS.

By 2001, collaborating with Dr. Hubert Gramling of Mercedes-Benz for five years, Hubbard had the HANS down to a manageable size for drivers. Championship Auto Racing Teams, one of the two major American open-wheel series of the time, had mandated the HANS for all of its drivers for 2001.

But Hubbard was still getting little response from NASCAR drivers.


Dale EarnhardtHHP/Harold HinsonDale Earnhardt liked to keep it simple inside the car, as this photo from 1998 demonstrates. An old-school seat, a five-point harness, no head and neck restraint and an open-faced helmet with goggles.

Seeing the "one o'clock hit," Melvin grasped the terrible possibilities in Earnhardt's crash right away.

With a straight-on hit, Earnhardt's head might have been caught by the steering wheel and he might have walked away -- just as Tony Stewart had.

"Tony Stewart, in that same race, that Daytona 500, hit the wall hard, but his car was pointed straight into the wall when he hit," says Melvin. "That put his head into the steering wheel, and he was OK.

"He probably hit harder than Earnhardt."

In Indy cars, drivers were saved from that violent whipping of the head when the steering wheels caught their heads.

"In the stock cars," says Melvin, "there's nothing out to the right" of the steering wheel to catch the head as it whips forward on impact. With a crash on the right-front of his car, Earnhardt's head almost certainly went to the right.


A NASCAR-commissioned investigation of the Earnhardt crash, conducted through the spring and summer of 2001, concluded that Earnhardt's basilar skull fracture may have been caused by a blow to the back of the head, and that a broken lap belt may have contributed to the injury.

Melvin, Hubbard and other experts doubted the broken belt was a critical factor.

Melvin described it at the time this way: "The belt did its job, and then it broke."

"It broke at high levels of load, so he probably would have died or been injured in the same pattern even if the belt hadn't broken," says Hubbard.

As for the actual mechanism of injury, "I'm pretty certain that Dale had basilar skull fracture due to tension between the head and neck," says Hubbard.


Whatever the details of Earnhardt's injury, "It was like somebody flipped a switch," says Hubbard. Drivers were suddenly, openly receptive to the HANS and other safety innovations.

"After that race, guys wanted to understand what had happened," says Hubbard. "They began to recognize that they had a problem, they wanted to understand it, and then they wanted to get a HANS device and gain experience with it."

"I don't like when people say NASCAR jumped in and did something when Dale got killed," says Waltrip. "They were working on all that stuff, implementing things every time someone would get hurt.

"It just took time. Two weeks after Feb. 18, 2001, I had a HANS on, and I'd never worn one before."

Several major innovations were in the pipeline, and NASCAR's Peterson knew about them. But now, he was heard clearer than ever throughout the garages and offices.

"He was well prepared to act, once they [NASCAR's hierarchy] said go," Hubbard says.

Even with the three driver deaths from basilar skull fracture in 2000, as drivers arrived at Daytona in '01, "I think we all just had this feeling that it wouldn't happen to us," says Waltrip. "Then when it happened to Dale Earnhardt, I think it told everyone it could happen to anybody."

"Clearly, Dale's death was the single most significant event that convinced people they had a problem," says Hubbard.

By the spring of 2001, mobilization toward safety innovation was occurring on all fronts. NASCAR initiated the Earnhardt investigation and joined the Indy Racing League in development of "soft walls," called the SAFER barrier -- for steel and foam energy reduction -- at the University of Nebraska.

With a few exceptions, drivers were buying and using the HANS device or an alternative head restraint of the time, called the Hutchens devise.

And by July 2001, NASCAR summoned Melvin, who'd been received so warily before, to Daytona Beach and hired him as a safety consultant.

Drivers, teams and seat manufacturers began working fervently toward Melvin's concept of cocoon-like seats that would serve as survival cells for drivers, akin to what was already being used in Formula One and Indy cars.

One highly improved seat, made of carbon fiber, went quickly into use.

"We had started working on it in 2000," says Melvin. "That's why it showed up so quickly after Mr. Earnhardt's death. We had already started on it."

Further, Melvin and his associates in the 1990s had "discovered that five-point belts [then used in NASCAR] were not nearly as effective as the six-point belts the Indy cars had."

So in the wake of Earnhardt's death, drivers began converting to six-point belts.

At General Motors, Tom Gideon intensified his safety research on energy-dissipating materials inside the cars.

"After a very short time," says Gideon, "Steve [Peterson] called all the manufacturers and said, 'We're looking at a redesign on the car.'"

That was the beginning of the Car of Tomorrow, rolled out in 2007 and required full time in 2008, which incorporated redesigned roll cages and crushable materials inside the cars to better resist dreaded side-impact, or "t-bone" crashes. And the driver's seat was moved farther away from the driver's-side door more toward the center of the compartment.

NASCAR didn't officially require head-restraint devices until October 2001, after Blaise Alexander, a driver in the satellite ARCA series, died of basilar skull fracture at Charlotte that month.

At that point, the dying stopped in major stock car racing.

Earnhardt was the last driver killed in any of NASCAR's three major series.


After the three fatalities of 2000, manufacturers and safety experts had adamantly advocated major improvement to NASCAR safety standards in five areas: head restraint, better seats, better belts, soft walls and crash recorder boxes.

We know where the car went, eventually. We know what it looks like. I think the real story is what happened to the restraint systems; that really is what changed it the most. So that's where we are today, and of course we now have a SAFER barrier, which helps.

-- Tom Gideon, NASCAR director of safety research and development

A decade later, NASCAR has long since not only implemented all those innovations, but has steadily improved upon them.

After Peterson's death in 2008, Gideon retired from GM and went to work for NASCAR, to head up the safety research and development unit. He now has a right-hand man, senior safety engineer John Patalak.

And now Gideon, Patalak and Fisher sit in a conference room in NASCAR's R&D center near Concord, N.C., talking openly about safety research, showing their equipment and remembering how far safety standards have come.

"We know where the car went, eventually," says Gideon, who was a major contributor to the COT's safety features. "We know what it looks like.

"I think the real story is what happened to the restraint systems; that really is what changed it the most. So that's where we are today, and of course we now have a SAFER barrier, which helps.

"A better car, better restraints, and we are all working every day to get better data and work on the car."

Fisher points to "our new black box, even though it's blue." The smaller-than-ever device, about the size of a paperback book, is carried onboard the cars. It records the G-spikes from every direction in every crash. It functions "just like a laptop computer, but smaller, lighter, maybe a little bit higher resolution," says Fisher.

And the crash data is only part of NASCAR's investigation of every accident on the tracks.

"We have a complete system of safety that's woven into what is done at the tracks," says Fisher. "It starts with pre-race inspection, where we inspect for all the safety gear. We check all the SFI [safety institute, a clearing house for approval] labels. We make sure everything is present and accounted for and installed correctly, as far as belts and seats and those types of things. And we have dedicated field inspectors. That's all they do in the pre-race inspection process, is focus on the safety stuff. So we take care of that before every event -- address any issues or problems before drivers ever make it onto the racetrack …

"After an accident, a car is brought back to the garage, and a field investigator -- the same person who did the pre-race inspection -- goes out and does a post-accident investigation," Fisher continues. "They take pictures, they gather information from the black box, they go through a documentation … . All that information gets entered into a database so we can research and compare similar accidents, as to why one caused an injury and one didn't.

"We have over 6,000 impacts recorded in the database here. We have the ability to tie that information back to medical data so that we can look at injuries and similar crash conditions and find out why some cause injuries and some don't. See if there is anything unique about the accidents."

Then comes the new research. "We look at all that data and that's what drives our research activity. What are the things we're seeing consistently that we need to work on?"

For example, since Ryan Newman's car landed on its roof at Talladega in 2009, and Brad Keselowski's car landed similarly at Atlanta last year, NASCAR engineers have been studying how to better strengthen the roofs and the tops of the roll cages.

They have the capability to raise a car up on a crane, "seven feet up in the air, and let it go -- drop it right on its roof," says Fisher.

They also have a huge, vise-like machine to apply loads of from 2,000 to 4,000 pounds on the roofs or other areas of the cars. "This rig controls the load," says Fisher. "It's a little bit more than just dropping the car. This is a deliberate crush."

A similar device applies deliberate loading to seats.

Both machines were designed and built in-house by NASCAR engineers and staff.

A decade ago, NASCAR didn't even belong to the SFI Institute, a consortium of many racing leagues, worldwide, to establish safety standards.

Now NASCAR is a full and leading member of SFI, and NASCAR standards are often higher than the institute's.

For example, if an inventor wants to submit a new head-restraint device, "You first have to meet SFI standards, just to get in the door" for NASCAR consideration, says Patalak. "Then we go above and beyond that a little bit."

NASCAR sends SFI-approved devices to a panel of experts in a particular area, such as head and neck restraint. That panel has "three options, basically," says Patalak. "The device can be acceptable for use, or non-acceptable for use. Or, oftentimes, they'll request more information about something. More test data."

Currently only two head restraints -- the HANS and the Hutchens Hybrid -- are approved by NASCAR. The HANS is the overwhelming choice of drivers.

Jim Downing, who runs the Atlanta-based manufacturing plant for the HANS, estimates that more than 120,000 of the devices are now in use worldwide. Nine major racing sanctioning bodies worldwide require their drivers to wear the device.

For monitoring safety compliance on cars, new for this season, from NASCAR, is a portable set of flat, square antennas to read the entire cars for the mandatory safety equipment.

"As we pass a car through an inspection station," says Fisher, the new antennas "will automatically read all those chips [attached to the various safety devices] and display them to us."

Immediately after Earnhardt's death, a theory spread through the garages that basilar skull fracture was occurring because the cars had been made stiffer, sending the energy shock to the driver's body. Engineers in recent years had made the chassis more rigid to keep them from flexing in the turns, and therefore enhance cornering.

But Patalak believes increased speeds, not chassis stiffness, is the ongoing issue. "I went back and researched and found that, in 1981, qualifying speed at Charlotte was 162. Now it's 190 … In 1980 you started your spin at 160; now you start it at 185. Big difference."

Besides, a certain amount of stiffness is necessary to keep the car from crushing in on the driver in what is called "intrusion" injury.

"When you really boil it down, there are two aspects to protecting the driver," says Patalak. "One is from inertial energy -- the G-load. How much can a human body take? The second part is from impact where you have crushing injuries. You're physically reducing the space that the occupant has to be in.

"You have to manage both. And it's a tradeoff. You can have it crush so that the Gs will be very low, but you have no space left. So you want it to crush right up to the edge of the person."

"One of the areas we're looking at, going forward, is what we can do to further enhance the cocoon that the driver sits in," says Fisher. "As John [Patalak] reminds me, everybody's tolerance for G-forces is different. We think we've got the driver restrained to the point where the G-forces are manageable. But as human beings, we all have similar resistance to intrusion or crush, and it's pretty low. We're soft and squishy. We don't crush very well.

"You want the car to crush a little bit, up to a point. Then you want it to stop. That's an engineering task, to figure out how much you want it to crush before it can't crush anymore. That's something we made better with the new car but we're continuing to look at."

Patalak found that "the stiffest part of the car is the No. 1 bar" -- or the main roll bar in the roll cage. "In next year's rule book there'll be a distance from the roll bar forward, and [in placing the driver's seat] you can't go further than that.

"Just like when they [drivers' seats] were moved toward the middle of the car, now we've mandated a certain distance back. So a short driver can no longer be moved out to the controls. The controls need to be brought back to the driver."

And so it goes: Every workday of every week, year round, the NASCAR engineers focus and work on safety.

"They're the only group that has a true R&D center," says Melvin. "That center isn't just for safety, but they do safety work there. Nobody else has a physical safety facility or an R&D facility at all."

The NASCAR facility at Concord is 60,000 square feet and employs 53 people full-time, including 10 engineers.

"The FIA has an institute for safety, but it's a paper thing," Melvin continues. "They've got some guys who are experts, they run tests at various labs, but they're sort of working out of their homes. There is no brick and mortar, if you will, that is dedicated to having employees sitting there doing that.

"The R&D center has people in full-time jobs. They come to work every day. And that's a wonderful thing."

Best of all, Melvin, Hubbard and the NASCAR engineers no longer meet old-school resistance in the garages.

The greatest leap has been in "the education of the industry," says Fisher. "Drivers, crews, suppliers, everybody is dialed into this stuff. They're asking questions, and they're asking the right questions. People call us all the time to review seat mounting. 'Is it OK to do it this way?' And they do it before it shows up at the racetrack.

"I think that advancement in interest and knowledge has moved us forward probably equally as much as a lot of innovations they've come up with in the last 10 years."

There is no better illustration of how safety has accelerated since the death of Earnhardt, Gideon believes, than "if you take a tour of the NASCAR Hall of Fame [in Charlotte]. They've done a very good job of reproducing those cars [that raced down through the decades].

"So you can go from 1948 [NASCAR's first year of competition] right on through, and look at the seat development. And of course nothing much changed until we got beyond the year 2000. And then things started to tighten up."

There was a very human tipping point for it all.

"There was a sea change," says Gideon, "with Earnhardt."

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.