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“Put a washcloth on it”: In NASCAR’s safety culture before Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001

This is Part II of a four-part series on the legacy of the life, death and safety of Dale Earnhardt, 20 years after his fatal crash at the 2001 Daytona 500.

DAYTONA SPEEDWEEKS 2001 opened with Kyle Petty to catch Dale Earnhardtwho has ducked his passenger for almost nine months to have an overdue conversation during Rolex’s 24-hour endurance race at Daytona.

At around 2:30 a.m. on February 4, Petty had just finished a driving shift and headed for the infield coach parking lot to get some sleep before his next stop at the wheel. Then he discovered Earnhardt, who had the same travel and sleeping schedule.

“I ran up to him and just didn’t give him anything,” Petty remembers now. “Before he could say anything or avoid me, I immediately jumped in: ‘How are you, man? How do you like driving these things?'”

Throughout the 2000 season, Petty had watched Earnhardt do everything possible to avoid him, from turning about when leaving the drivers’ meeting to hiding behind a stack of tires in the garage so as not to have a very tough conversation.

The toughest man in motorsport, Earnhardt had avoided Petty since the death of Petty’s 19-year-old son Adam at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in May 2000. As good-hearted as Earnhardt could be when it came to achieving his goals, a racing colleague in times of tragedy, he was notorious for not handling hospital visits, let alone funerals, well.

The whole year had been filled with unsettling conversations for everyone in the garage resulting from three deaths on NASCAR’s top three national series over just five months. But there had been no overwhelming demand for change. Not yet, at least not in the stock car racing community. No, it was all just sad and uncomfortable, even for two old friends.

Kyle Petty and Earnhardt grew up together. The sons of a couple of multigenerational cyclists were testimony to royal stock car racing bloodlines that had much debate over putting their own sons behind the wheel. Earnhardt was nine years older, and his father Ralph was a short-haul legend who had died early of a heart attack. So Dale had grown up on the Carolinas Race Director for himself. By now, Petty’s father, Richard, was the biggest name in NASCAR history. Kyle’s arrival in the Cup series in 1979, the same season that Earnhardt won Rookie of the Year, was the forerunner of Dale Earnhardt Jr.20 years later the much-touted Winston Cup debut. In 1999, Kyle’s son made his equally ballyhooed debut as a full-time driver on the Busch series.

Adam Petty On April 2, 2000, his only cup series started at Texas Motor Speedway, where Earnhardt Jr. celebrated his first cup race win. Earnhardt Sr. finished eighth while Kyle Petty, who did not qualify for the event, made it out as a reserve driver for the injured Elliott Sadler. It was the only time that all four men appeared in the same race. Six weekends later, Adam Petty died when his Busch series car was plowed into the wall of Turn 3 at a dangerous corner of the right front corner “1 o’clock”.

“It was just too close for him to Dale Jr.,” says Petty. “He couldn’t put his head around Adam’s gone because Adam and Junior ran together at Myrtle Beach Speedway and they’d driven together and done things together, and he just didn’t know what to say.

“”[Dale] I never skipped a beat, “says Petty with a smile as he remembers the moment when he finally cornered Earnhardt on that motorhome lot in Daytona.” He said, “I’m so sorry. I just don’t know what to tell you.” And I said, “Well, let’s just talk about it. Let’s just talk man.” So we went to his bus and sat outside there probably for an hour and a half. “

Petty told Earnhardt that he understood, but also asked him not to avoid him anymore. They laughed. They cried. They promised to keep the conversation going.

“There was a lot of truth to be seen, and that kind of truth is tough, especially for racing drivers,” says Petty. “We were all forced to face a lot of truth at this time, a lot of really difficult truths about what we did for a living, and Dale Earnhardt was certainly no different from any of us.”

The truth at the time was that racing drivers, especially stock car racers, were dying at historic speeds – the worst season in 36 years.

LESS THAN TWO Months after Petty’s death, on July 7th, Kenny Irwin Jr. died in almost exactly the same spot and in exactly the same type of accident that Petty had killed when his Cup Series car hit the front wall of the with such force from the front right NHMS Turn 3 came across that it threw its Chevy on the roof. The third fatality occurred on a Friday evening, October 13, 2000, as the Truck Series driver Tony Roper was converted into the concrete barrier along the front stretch of Texas Motor Speedway, also at the dreaded 1 o’clock angle.

The next morning at Talladega Superspeedway, the Cup Series crews had their cars on for “happy hour” for the Winston 500 on Sunday 18th to first shot, which would be Earnhardt’s 76th and final win, before final practice technical inspections hired.

Those in the garage watched the Truck Series race the night before, watched Roper’s accident, and most had gone to bed before he was officially pronounced dead at the hospital. As the word came through the Talladega infield, there was little more than a shake of the head … then the teams pushed their cars on through the tech line.

“Well, it’s wrong, but the drivers don’t see what happens when other drivers lose their lives and say, ‘Oh my god! We have to do something! I’m scared of races!’ or, ‘I’m nervous about getting back in a car after seeing what happened to these guys,’ “says Earnhardt Jr. of the garage mentality, even in a season as terrible as 2000.

The drivers rested with broken legs and backs and glued-on swollen eyelids, which prompted Earnhardt Jr. to describe the old NASCAR safety culture as “put on a washcloth” according to the mantra. When Earnhardt Jr. suffered the first of his multiple concussions in Daytona in 1998, his remedy was precisely that: he lay on the couch watching his father win the Daytona 500 on TV with a cold washcloth on his aching head.

“A driver is killed. It happens and you argue with it,” says Earnhardt Jr .. “You go, ‘Man, that’s a coincidence. I wonder what caused this? Because it can’t be as simple as that Common sense story that I hear. ‘ Right? It must be something weird. You start to analyze the reasons why it was warranted so that you will be more comfortable getting in the car for the next race over the next week. And you have a variety of reasons for doing it shouldn’t have happened and probably not why it won’t happen to you. “

In 2000 the list of these reasons was long. The drivers publicly stated that Adam Petty was too young and inexperienced. Irwin was always a bit reckless. Roper was over his head. Petty and Irwin’s throttles were hung up and there was no way they could kill the engine. Roper should never have tried to thread the needle into the front stretch dogleg in Texas or his truck wouldn’t have hit the wall like that, right?

In private, questions were asked about the increasing rigidity of the chassis. Were the same rigid racing car skeletons that led to higher speeds and better handling too fast for their own good and too unforgiving when they hit the wall?

This conversation about car slowdowns upset Earnhardt Sr. and led to his legendary quote: “Put a kerosene rag around your ankles so the ants don’t get up and eat that candy ass.”

Even so, he often recognized the need for safety improvements in sports. He defied the garage grain with its support for so-called “soft wall” concepts designed and tested by engineers around the world, mainly by screwing the soft wall to existing irreconcilable concrete barriers to keep energy away from the car and driver absorb during a crash.

Earnhardt had believed in the concept during an IROC All-Star Event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1998 when he had a front row seat for Arie Luyendyk’s violent contact with the inner retaining wall of Turn 4. The two-time Indy 500 Champion accidentally struck a section that was covered with an experimental PEDS (Polyethylene Energy Dissipating System) barrier. The scale-like wall paneling exploded in sections and flew over the entire circuit. It absorbed violent energy from Luyendyk, who was walking unimaginably from a car that had been twisted beyond recognition.

Later that fall, Earnhardt requested a video of foam-based block-based barriers in use on the Oswego (New York) Speedway short haul. Similar styrofoam blocks had cushioned the steel barrier at Turn 1 at Watkins Glen that summer, likely saving the life of a young Busch series driver who lost his brakes and drove into that fence at over 100 mph. Incredible, he got out and stood on the roof of his Chevy with arms raised in disbelief. His name was Jimmie Johnson.

When asked about the most voiced concern about foam and soft PEDS walls – that it took too long to clean after a crash – Earnhardt said, “I’d rather wait 15 or 20 minutes for them to clean up the mess than let them clean me off the wall. “

He even reluctantly gave in to a custom-made aluminum bucket seat, replacing the beloved old school cradles he’d built himself for years, seats that looked little more than a school bus bench. He always hesitated to get too reluctant in the cockpit, preferring to do what he called “driving down an accident” because he believed it was better to move with the force. He feared that if he was buckled too tightly, a hard impact would result in knotted and stretched muscles.

Deep down, Earnhardt was still an old-school short-distance racer, but he was always ready to discuss new ideas. At least for a while.

“The safety talk with Dale has been pretty consistent,” said Gary Nelson, a world-class crew chief known for his technical creativity and ability to bend the NASCAR rulebook, who also served as director of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series during the boom Days of the 1990s. “Dale always thought of the big picture, not just for himself or his team, but for the sport as a whole, and that included safety. If you’ve been to the racetrack at the NASCAR office at any time in this decade, there is one good chance that at some point Dale would walk in with something on his mind for me [NASCAR chairman] bill [France] Junior or Mike Helton, who was NASCAR president up until then. “

Of those meetings with Earnhardt that we need to talk about, Helton says, “That’s part of his character just to go straight to the source who can say either yes or no and who built the relationship he built with Bill Jr. would have.” and thereby me.

“He’d cut through all the filth and say, ‘Look what’s that?’ or ‘You have to do this!’ or ‘What the hell are you doing?’ or most of the time it was, “Let me help you here or there,” he continues. “That came as a voice from the garage, on behalf of the garage, with the charisma and moxie to do it. That made him the talking head for the garage area when NASCAR had to be addressed. “

HOW MANY IN NASCAR, Earnhardt was skeptical of a security proposal – the Head and Neck Support Device (HANS).

One of those entrances for Earnhardt NASCAR fans was in mid-July 2000, a week after Irwin’s death in New Hampshire, during a two-day test by General Motors at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The intimidator blew into the office in front of the sanctions authority’s 18-wheeler and dropped onto one of the leather sofas. Helton was in this office meeting Jim Downing, an old friend from Helton’s days as general manager of Atlanta Motor Speedway.

“They had a small desk there and [Earnhardt] threw his leg over the corner and kind of sat down, “recalls Downing in his seminal 2019 book” Crash! From Senna to Earnhardt. “” He looked at us with that bristly mustache and that grin as if to say, ‘What are you talking about?’ “

He knew exactly what the topic of conversation was. Downing was the co-inventor of HANS. General Motors and Ford privately urged their drivers to wear the HANS, offered it for free and even promised a small cash bonus for it. But there were almost no buyers. So, according to Downing, Earnhardt’s question was also a message.

“He didn’t want anything to do with the HANS and didn’t want Mike to listen to what I had to say,” writes Downing. “Earnhardt, who was sitting there, pretty much closed the discussion with Mike.”

Downing’s invention was slow to grow in racing circles, especially given the idea that the HANS device was finally developed in 1981 after the tragedy fueled his research.

Downing had had a terrifying accident at a sports car event in Canada in 1980 and was deeply concerned about the death of a colleague, French racing driver Patrick Jacquemart, who was killed after direct contact with a concrete barrier in Mid-Ohio’s sports car course in July 1981.

Downing, who built racing cars from his Atlanta business, couldn’t understand how Jacquemart, an engineer by trade and therefore always meticulous about how he was strapped into his cars, suffered fatal head injuries. He put his question to his brother-in-law, Robert Hubbard, a professor of bioprocess engineering for the State of Michigan and a veteran of General Motors’ auto safety program.

Hubbard noted that Jacquemart had been killed by a fractured skull, a largely unknown and misunderstood injury in the motorsport world at the time. It was always thrown into the larger bucket labeled “head trauma”. But the details of the injury are far more gruesome, and the frequency of skull fractures was far greater than anyone had thought.

“We didn’t understand at the time that the injury was as common as it was because nobody was keeping track,” Hubbard explained in 2018. “The racing driver’s mentality was that it should just be that way and that there was nothing.” can be done about it. But Jim and I didn’t feel that way. “

The human skull is made up of several bones that fuse together with age. At the base of the skull are five bones that connect around the vertebrae that make up the neck, the beginning of the spinal cord. It’s a critical intersection on our body’s highway, where nerves and blood vessels connect the brain to the rest of the body. Any damage to these five bones is a basilar skull fracture and threatens to affect these blood and communication routes.

When a racing car hits a wall and brakes quickly, the driver’s body wants to continue driving at its original speed. That’s why racers with multipoint seatbelts and seatbelts are so tightly strapped into their rigidly mounted seats because they want to stop moving around the car.

The problem arises when her restrained body stops moving, but her unbridled head doesn’t. A helmet head that weighs 10 to 12 pounds and pulls away from the body at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour relies only on muscles and tendons to hold it back. When these soft tissues fail to do so, the head literally pulls away from the neck, breaking the bones at its base – the skull basilar fracture – and pulling these fragile blood vessels and nerves apart. The blood flow is cut off, the brain can no longer communicate with the body, and death is instantaneous.

That killed Jacquemart in 1981. That killed Adam Petty, Irwin, and Roper in 2000. It also killed NASCAR drivers Grant Adcox at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1989, J. D. McDuffie 1991 in Watkins Glen, 1992 Clifford Allison in Michigan, Formula 1 racing driver Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna 1994 in Imola, 1996 Indy 500 pole winner Scott Brayton, NASCAR Truck Series racing driver John Nemechek 1997 in Homestead Miami and 1999 in the CART drivers Gonzalo Rodriguez and Greg Moore in Laguna Seca and in the Auto Club Speedway.

For a three day period in 1994, NASCAR drivers Rodney Orr and Neil Bonnett were killed in almost identical accidents while practicing for the Daytona 500. Both were bent into the wall at a right front angle. Bonnett was Earnhardt’s best friend. He had been forced into retirement four years earlier after suffering head injuries from a partial skull fracture at Darlington Raceway, but was lured back into the cockpit by Earnhardt.

“We were all forced to face a lot of truth at this time, a lot of really difficult truth about what we did for a living.”

Kyle Petty on a string of deaths in NASCAR

Later that year, Earnhardt competed Ernie Irvan suffered a partial skull fracture in a vicious practice accident on Michigan Speedway. It affected his motor skills and eyesight, and blurred his speech, but he was able to race again later that year. Why wasn’t he killed from his injuries? He was rescued just as Bonnett was in 1990. The forward movement of his head was stopped when he hit the steering wheel. This is why the impacts at 1 o’clock around the right front corner are so feared. The unrestrained head always moves in the direction of the first impact. When that head is tossed into the deep, empty spaces of the right front of the cockpit, there is nothing to slow it down. Any other direction presents an obstacle to possibly stopping it, be it the steering wheel, window screen or headrest.

The steering wheel limited Irvan’s injuries to terrible rather than fatal.

The Hubbard-Downing concept was simple. Create a device that will hold the head in place at the same speed as the body during a fall. A black frame resembling a neck rest was placed on the rider’s shoulders, strapped under the belts with this rider, and then attached to the helmet via separate straps in several places on each side of the headgear. The same straps that were used to hold the body in place would add the head to their workload.

An initial idea, sketched on loose-leaf paper in East Lansing, had turned into a cardboard prototype and then black metal and carbon. Downing wore the first model of a sports car event in 1986, which happened to be at Daytona International Speedway. Over the next decade and a half, the first bulky “Darth Vader” model was scaled down, and in 1991 the first models were put on sale to the public.

The problem was, no one was buying them. At least not at first. Downing was the first to wear a HANS in competition, and actor / racing driver Paul Newman was second. But even when Hubbard gave extensive presentations to sanctioning bodies and groups like the International Conference of Motorsport Science and his colleague Dr. John Melvin, arguably the most respected voice in American racing safety history, made his case about why head and neck rests were important. Fewer than 300 were sold in the decade that spanned the 1991 HANS debut and the end of the 2000 season.

Indy car racing like Mario Andretti said it wouldn’t fit in their tight cockpits. NASCAR racers were concerned about the effects on peripheral vision. All racing drivers feared that extra seating on their shoulders would affect their ability to get out of the car quickly in the event of a fire.

Earnhardt called the HANS device “a bloody noose”.

“One thing I’ve learned as a driver is that any safety feature in a racing car, whether it’s weight or aerodynamics or something that is added to the cockpit, is a performance penalty,” Andretti now says of the racers’ built-in drag. “It usually has to be implemented by the sanctioning body. Then everyone has it. Everyone has to take care of it immediately. Because I will certainly not voluntarily add something that I think will give my competition an advantage, because I myself gave. ” a disadvantage. Safer or not. “

Kyle Petty brings it to 2021.

“Right now, it’s hard to convince anyone to wear a mask during this COVID pandemic,” says Petty, who tried an early HANS during the 1991 Winston Cup season before deciding it was too awkward. “How am I going to convince you to wear a headrest?”

ULTIMATE, CONVINCING came in the form of an overwhelming tragedy. When aspiring racing driver Rodriguez flew over the wall at the entrance to Laguna Seca’s famous downhill corkscrew in 1999, the accident scene was so horrific that it even caught Champ Car’s famous chief orthopedic expert, Dr. Terry Trammell, shaken. The basilar skull fracture of the 28-year-old Uruguayan caused him to bleed out immediately. Just six weeks later, Greg Moore, who is considered the future superstar of North American open wheel racing, suffered equally gruesome injuries at the season finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

Trammell and his associate, Indy 500’s long-time medical liaison officer, Dr. Steven Olvey, pioneered the collection of injury data in motorsport. Their first study found that from 1978 to 1984, a staggering 89% of serious motorsport injuries were orthopedic, with only 10% being head injuries. In a similar study from 1994 to 1998, head injuries in CART races had increased to 58% and in NASCAR to 33%. And that was before the merciless seasons of 1999 and 2000.

“The cars had evolved so much and the speed of those cars had increased so much in such a short time,” he says Darrell whale tripwho made his debut in the Cup series in 1972 and retired after the 2000 season. “But the fundamentals of our safety, from belts to helmets to track walls, were essentially the same as they had been for a long time.”

After extensive HANS tests in 2000, CART announced that all drivers would have to use the device during its oval races. There was no mandate in the Cup series garage that stuck to NASCAR’s longstanding practice of leaving such things to drivers and teams as “independent contractors”. During the deadly 2000 season, only two drivers wore head and neck rests. Kyle Petty, who got into the Cup car that was supposed to be Adams, returned to the track with the HANS and was pleasantly surprised at how less awkward it was than his turn with the bulky Model I nine years earlier .

The only other competitor buying in was the driver / owner Brett Bodine. He was the only full-time racing driver in the garage with an engineering degree, and the only driver immediately affected by Jim Downing’s sales pitch at the same Indianapolis Motor Speedway test that Earnhardt had interrupted Downing’s meeting with Helton.

“We went to the Pocono Raceway the next weekend, and when I put that thing on I put every name in the book,” recalled Bodine in 2019. “Sissy, pansy, candy ass, all that. ‘Hey man, What do you use it for? ‘But I’ve done it every practice and race lap and I could see all of my mirrors well. “

Bodine wore his HANS for the remainder of the 2000 season, more than a dozen races. The longer he stayed at it, the more the comments he received switched from insults to inquiries. When Roper died in October, these inquiries increased. With his HANS on his shoulders, Bodine finished 28th in the 2000 season finale, a cold, bad day at the Atlanta Motor Speedway just a short drive south of Downing’s store, where HANS machines were stacked and waiting to be sold .

“I said to everyone who asked, guys, we need to fix this,” says Bodine. “You’re making fun of yourself, okay. But the right thing is the right thing. And I promised the HANS people that I would do everything I can to help them before it gets worse.”

It got worse. The 2001 Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt’s last race, was 91 days away.

Part III of this four-part series continues Thursday by revisiting the 2001 Daytona 500 with the people who lived it.

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