That is the ultimate installment of a four-part sequence on the life, demise and security legacy of Dale Earnhardt, 20 years after his deadly crash on the 2001 Daytona 500.
THE WORLD HAS not seen Ryan Newman’s 2020 Daytona 500 race automotive in almost a 12 months. The final time any of us noticed that Roush Fenway Racing-constructed Mustang, we thought we had been observing a coffin.
The automotive that had been within the lead with the checkered flag in sight was the wrong way up on the infield grass, twisted and on hearth as security crews crawled throughout it, frantically working to avoid wasting the unconscious driver inside, 42-year-old Newman, hanging limp from his seat belts.
However Newman sees that automotive on a regular basis. The mangled white, black and blue stays of the No. 6 Ford sit in a barn on his sprawling property in Statesville, North Carolina. If shut buddies or household ask to see it, he’ll present it to them, although he would not permit pictures. He would not need it to develop into a vacationer attraction. He desires it to be an academic instrument.
On the evening of Feb. 17, 2020, whereas he was being carried from the Daytona racetrack in an ambulance to close by Halifax Well being Medical Middle, that automotive was towed again to the monitor’s storage. There, NASCAR security officers gave it an preliminary inspection, attempting to dissect what went flawed — and what went proper — through the horrific accident that despatched the three,300-pound machine into the wall and onto its roof, solely to be launched greater than 10 ft into the air when it was pushed by way of by an onrushing automotive.
Over the subsequent few weeks, whereas Newman recovered from a mind bruise and miraculously little else, the automotive was in Harmony, North Carolina, at NASCAR’s Analysis and Improvement (R&D) Middle, the place each piece of each wrecked NASCAR inventory automotive is examined, photographed and scanned into a pc alongside information downloaded from a “blue field” incident information recorder (IDR) and video from the high-speed digicam mounted on the roll bar, pointed immediately on the driver to detect each motion of each fiber of their security programs and, most significantly, their heads and necks.
As soon as every thing has been digested by the computer systems, the crash is re-created just about, time and again, because the R&D workforce makes use of each little bit of the know-how that the Nationwide Transportation Security Board applies to investigating airplane crashes. Newman himself even stopped by, stepping in behind the top-secret pull-down doorways the place the automotive was being saved, to attempt to make sense of how and why he was alive.
By summer season, the crumpled No. 6 automotive was despatched again to Roush Fenway Racing. The workforce requested the driving force, who had returned to racing, if he’d wish to have it. Newman stated sure.
From time to time, he walks out to try his 2020 Daytona 500 journey. He would not keep in mind something concerning the crash, and even about that day apart from having lunch together with his mother and father earlier than going to the monitor. However he has pored over the automotive so many instances and watched the video much more. He earned a level in vehicular engineering from Purdue, taking lessons through the week whereas racing dash automobiles on the weekend. When he appears at that automotive, that thoughts is in overdrive, always attempting to CSI what occurred, how every thing round him, all of that steel, rubber and foam, moved and bent and crushed in simply the proper technique to maintain him alive.
Typically he even goes full Robert Duvall in “Days of Thunder.” He talks to his race automotive in a barn.
“I really feel like that automotive is a trophy of one thing that saved my life. Now, it might have price me. My life was most likely millimeters away or a half a G away, nevertheless you wish to name it, but it surely’s there and it saved my life,” Newman says in an interview for “E:60 Presents — Intimidator: The Lasting Legacy of Dale Earnhardt.”
“It is a credit score to all of the folks within the trade,” he continues. “Not simply this 12 months, not simply the folks that constructed that race automotive. However the final hundred years of constructing race automobiles and know-how. The fellows that first staggered door bars and first put foam within a helmet as an alternative of leather-based. You speak about all of the issues which have occurred within the final hundred years of racing and security …
“These folks collectively saved my life.”
Atop that roster of security saviors is Dale Earnhardt. The Intimidator’s security legacy has arguably had a bigger impression on the game than even his racing résumé. From 1989 till his demise within the remaining flip of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, 2001, 9 drivers had been killed throughout NASCAR’s high three sequence. Earnhardt’s was the fourth fatality over a heartbreaking span of solely 9 months.
Within the 20 years since Earnhardt’s demise, that quantity is zero.
THOSE WHO WORKED within the sport earlier than the 2001 Daytona 500 and nonetheless work within the storage in the present day incessantly discover themselves wrestling with the earlier than and after of NASCAR’s mentality towards security. That feeling was particularly uncooked for many who witnessed Newman’s 2020 crash and immediately acknowledged the uneasiness of these unsure hours between that accident and the announcement that his accidents had been non-life-threatening.
Steve O’Donnell, now NASCAR’s chief racing growth officer, made the Newman announcement. On Feb. 17, 2020, he was excessive atop the speedway in Race Management. On Feb. 18, 2001, the day Dale Earnhardt died, he was down within the Daytona 500 Victory Lane as “the hat dance man” who made positive the race winners wore all the right sponsor caps for all the proper pictures.
“Within the mid-to-late Nineties, there have been loads of incidents, loads of trepidation. Security was a troublesome dialog, and it turned one thing that you simply nearly did not wish to speak about it. It wasn’t cool to speak about it,” O’Donnell recollects. “Publish-Dale Earnhardt’s passing, that dialog shifted. All people was all-in on, ‘How can we repair this? Now we have to repair it.’ It turned OK to speak about it as a gaggle. Now you’re anticipated to do it.”
That shift began the evening Earnhardt died, when the telephones began ringing at Jim Downing’s store in Atlanta with calls from beforehand defiant racers, asking the co-inventor of the HANS system how they might buy one in every of his head and neck restraints. From the time they went on sale in 1991 by way of Earnhardt’s demise a decade later, Downing and brother-in-law Robert Hubbard offered fewer than 300 of their HANS units, particularly designed to stop a basilar cranium fracture, the harm that killed Earnhardt. After the 2001 Daytona 500, they exceeded that quantity in lower than per week.
“When Earnhardt died, that needle moved so far as it might go. Individuals stopped reacting and bought proactive.”
On the finish of that week, whereas 1000’s of mourning race followers gathered exterior Dale Earnhardt Inc. in Mooresville, North Carolina, prefer it was Graceland, Cup Sequence drivers confirmed up on the North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham carrying the HANS, the extra rudimentary Hutchens system and a science-fair exhibit of additional nets, webbing and race seat attachments, all geared toward bracing the pinnacle and physique.
Superman was useless. His demise pressured a storage full of people that have all the time prided themselves on their bravery to grapple with a sensation that’s particularly overseas amongst race automotive drivers. They felt weak.
“I imagine that each driver that ever sat in a race automotive and misplaced their life has part of the legacy of the protection of this sport,” says Kyle Petty, who misplaced his son Adam in a Could 2000 crash at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Kyle is the grandson of Lee Petty, winner of the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959, and son of Richard, NASCAR’s greatest pre-Dale Earnhardt celebrity.
“To start with you did not have to put on helmets, after which some man bought killed in 1951 and the subsequent week guys had been carrying helmets,” Petty says. “In 1964, Joe Weatherly hit his head as a result of he used unfastened seat belts, and Fireball Roberts burned to demise as a result of we had been utilizing steel gasoline cells. In 1970, my dad bought flung out the window at Darlington and may have died. So guess what? We bought higher seat belts, rubber gasoline cells and window nets.”
Petty strikes his hand as if it had been a tachometer, demonstrating the protection needle that moved every time one thing dangerous occurred to an enormous NASCAR star.
“When Adam died and Kenny [Irwin] died and [Tony] Roper died, all in 2000, the needle moved just a bit,” he says. “However when Earnhardt died, that needle moved so far as it might go. Individuals stopped reacting and bought proactive.”
At Rockingham, NASCAR held a information convention in a tent erected to accommodate the a whole bunch of media members there to cowl an occasion that usually attracted solely a few dozen sportswriters. When NASCAR president Mike Helton tried to deal with the group of worldwide journalists like he would have the conventional Rockingham crowd, it didn’t go over properly, particularly when he repeated a mantra he’d already preached at Daytona the day after Earnhardt’s demise, with NASCAR chairman Invoice France Jr. at his aspect.
When requested for specifics about head and neck restraints, smooth wall boundaries and different potential security mandates, Helton replied, “We merely should not going to react for the sake of reacting.”
“Being proactive is taking what , and biking by way of what , to attempt to determine what may occur and what you possibly can do to stop one thing from taking place,” Helton, who moved on from the NASCAR presidency in 2015 however nonetheless serves on the board of administrators, explains 20 years later. “Reactive is, ‘OK, now I’ve seen one thing new that I did not know earlier than, and let’s put that in a hopper and see if there’s one thing we are able to do with that new piece of data.’
“There was a lot info abruptly, it was rather a lot to course of. We needed to ask, what’s going to doing this right here imply to a different a part of the automotive over there, or to the drivers?”
Helton says that NASCAR’s biggest problem was stepping out of the storage bubble and asking for assist, a departure from its longtime wagons-circled method of doing enterprise.
“We had been already ramping up security efforts from various things; you possibly can look again on the historical past of roof flaps [added to cars in 1994 to keep them from going airborne at speedways] and various things that we reacted to prior to now,” Helton says. “However I feel the vitality stage of individuals wanting to speak about it was at an all-time excessive after [Earnhardt’s death on] Feb. 18, and never simply within the storage space; it was world. It was worldwide. There have been actually extremely proficient firms and people globally that wished to determine how one can shut the hole on the protection factor after the 18th.”
Throughout a 2019 interview, Gary Nelson, who had began the 2001 season as Winston Cup Sequence director however was named head of the just-opened R&D Middle by season’s finish, recalled the shift in NASCAR’s security mindset.
“All the pieces we did and stated and determined was inside that storage,” Nelson stated. “Dr. John Melvin, the racing security skilled, or Dr. Bob Hubbard would come to speak about security or the HANS, and we revered them however did not perceive them. I had a man, an engineer, Steve Peterson, and I would inform him to go deal with them. However then, in 2001, we had been going to them and saying, ‘OK, speak to us.'”
IF ONLY IT had occurred that easily.
As an alternative, summer season 2001 was NASCAR’s most depressing interval. Whereas race groups pressed on by way of grief, the sanctioning physique trudged by way of a PR quagmire, whilst post-Earnhardt tv rankings rose. NASCAR fought with media shops and different racing sequence, and even feuded with security specialists. France froze out Melvin after he publicly questioned NASCAR’s resolution to show a frayed and damaged seat belt discovered within the No. 3 automotive, which turned the de facto smoking gun. He believed the belt had seemingly damaged by way of the power of the collision with the wall, so Earnhardt’s deadly cranium fracture had already occurred.
NASCAR employed a Washington, D.C.-based PR agency, which instantly suggested France that “being pissed off shouldn’t be a plan.”
However misplaced amid all of the finger-pointing and headlines had been indicators that the protection needle was certainly transferring. NASCAR labored with IndyCar and the College of Nebraska to check the “smooth wall” SAFER barrier, an aluminum and foam wall overlaying that sucks vitality away from a race automotive upon impression. In the beginning of the 2001 All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Could, Jeff Gordon hit the Flip 1 wall on the dreaded 1 o’clock angle however walked away.
“I stretched my neck so arduous,” the eventual 2001 Cup champion stated. “I’ve to thank God and the HANS system.”
On Aug. 21, 2001, NASCAR launched the findings of its $1 million investigation into Earnhardt’s crash. “Official Accident Report No. 3 Automotive” was a two-volume, 300-page deluge of data. It used GPS tracing, laptop simulations, real-life crash checks, pictures and numerous different information factors to dissect the deadly accident. That analysis turned the muse upon which in the present day’s extra detailed crash research by NASCAR’s R&D Middle are carried out.
The conclusion of the report was that Earnhardt had certainly died of a basilar cranium fracture, although to many, the true explanation for the harm appeared buried underneath all the information and a raging public battle with Invoice Simpson, longtime security guru and producer of the seat belts in query.
Because the years have passed by, that seat belt controversy has pale within the wake of the true concern, the doable preventability of Earnhardt’s demise. In response to Downing and Hubbard’s 2019 guide, “Crash! From Senna to Earnhardt,” through the investigation Dr. James Raddin, one of many lead investigators, was requested by NASCAR officers whether or not a HANS system would have saved Earnhardt. He stated merely “Sure” to a room stuffed with surprised silence. The instrument that would have saved him wasn’t some new invention that wanted to be found. It had been there all alongside.
That fall, Melvin was referred to as in to speak to France. The NASCAR chairman requested him the identical query about whether or not the HANS system would have saved Earnhardt. Melvin answered, “Sure, sir.”
In an interview shortly earlier than his demise in 2014, Melvin recalled that assembly: “I figured that I’d be proven the door. As an alternative, they stated, ‘OK, so the place can we go from right here?’ they usually employed me on the spot.” Melvin labored with Nelson and Peterson to get the NASCAR R&D Middle on line by the tip of 2001, initially figuring out of an previous race store. The present 60,000-square-foot constructing opened its doorways in 2003.
“I feel there has all the time been a misunderstanding about R&D, that it was invented due to Dale’s demise,” O’Donnell explains. “The plans for this facility had been already in place. What modified was the main focus. To start with, it had extra of a competition-based mission, and that is nonetheless an enormous half of what’s accomplished right here. Security was all the time part of the plan, however after Dale’s demise, the main focus leaned rather more into a security mission.”
Even nonetheless, NASCAR did not mandate head and neck restraints till October 2001, after driver Blaise Alexander was killed in an ARCA inventory automotive occasion at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Oct. 1. He died of a basilar cranium fracture after contact with Kerry Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt’s oldest youngster.
Alexander was the final driver to die in a significant inventory automotive occasion.
“Blaise was one in every of my finest buddies,” says Jimmie Johnson, who made his Cup Sequence debut at Charlotte Motor Speedway that very same week. “If in the present day’s security laws and requirements had been in place, Blaise Alexander would nonetheless be right here as properly. So to me, it is private. I’ve counted on these restraint programs and smooth partitions and all of the issues that got here from their premature deaths to maintain my life protected, however I sadly misplaced one in every of my closest buddies, and we misplaced Dale.”
AFTER FIVE DECADES of slow-moving, reactionary security efforts, NASCAR now doles out safety-based adjustments and mandates at a comparatively superspeedway-like tempo.
Over its first 20 years, the R&D Middle has overseen the set up and evolution of SAFER boundaries (although full-wall protection has nonetheless moved at a typically frustratingly deliberate crawl). The middle additionally has spearheaded the implementation of six-, seven- and now nine-point seat belt restraint programs, in addition to obligatory full-face helmets, All Belts to Seats (ABTS) mounting and in-depth seat analysis. There even have been quite a few metal bars added all through the cockpit cage space, in addition to energy-absorbing foam and the high-speed video cameras, launched in 2018. A second technology of “blue field” incident information recorders continues to create an enormous library of data, detecting early patterns earlier than they develop into lethal developments.
In 2007, the R&D Middle additionally birthed NASCAR’s Era 5 automotive, aka the “Automotive of Tomorrow.” Drivers and followers hated the boxy aesthetics of it, however safety-wise it was revolutionary, creating a bigger “greenhouse” cockpit space and transferring drivers nearer to the middle of the automotive, away from harmful window openings and partitions.
Most days, Dr. John Patalak, NASCAR’s senior director of security engineering, may be discovered together with his employees within the R&D Middle on the controls of superpowered hydraulic pulls and presses, stretching the boundaries of nylon window nets and conducting maddeningly sluggish compression checks of piping and foam, to see how they may react to the in-race pressures which are produced in fractions of seconds.
On one big HD monitor is super-slow-motion footage of a soda can fired from a cannon to see how a laminate windshield holds up versus 190 mph projectiles. On one other monitor is a pc simulation of a 1 o’clock-angle collision with a newly designed entrance bumper. And on one more TV is footage of a high-speed digicam from final fall’s Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval occasion, pointed at a Cup Sequence driver as his automotive bounces off a backstretch barrier. A flashing orange dot signifies the racer skilled an ultra-quick however not insignificant G-load. To most, it’s utterly unnoticeable. However to the cameras and Patalak’s skilled eye, the blip was a stable take a look at of the driving force’s HANS, seat and headrests. All did their jobs.
Patalak, employed by Peterson earlier than his demise in 2008, holds three levels in each mechanical and biomedical engineering. He got here into this job realizing what race automobiles do once they crash. Now he understands what the human physique does too.
“This goes again to how Dale Sr.’s demise impacted the trade, an ongoing effort that by no means stops, hoping to know what we do not know as quickly as doable,” Patalak says together with his hand resting on a piece of black foam, only one block in a lineup ready to endure hydraulic press torture. “The low-hanging fruit is gone in inventory automotive security, however you continue to must search for these 5 and 10% enhancements on all of the programs, and that is nonetheless taking place. That by no means stops.”
Not even when Patalak is attempting to squeeze in some Sunday household time. If his telephone begins buzzing throughout a race, he is aware of there’s been a crash that wants his consideration. The images begin flowing in from NASCAR officers on the racetrack, together with their on-the-spot immediate evaluation of what occurred.
When Newman’s automotive arrived (alongside together with his barely splintered HANS and his extraordinarily cracked helmet), points that had been found had been separated into short- and long-term initiatives. With the subsequent superspeedway race scheduled for Talladega Speedway in lower than two months, the R&D workforce regarded for any quick-fix points which may have wanted to be put in by race groups as they had been constructing their automobiles for Daytona’s sister racetrack. The longer-term initiatives had been steered into the Subsequent Gen folder, as within the next-generation mannequin of NASCAR inventory automotive that was already being designed for 2021 (now 2022 because of the pandemic).
On Could 1, whereas NASCAR was nonetheless two weeks away from rising from quarantine, an inventory of competitors changes was issued, based mostly on the Newman findings. It included the addition of a verify valve to the oil reservoir tank, which was the supply of the hearth that was spreading in Newman’s automotive as he and it hung the wrong way up. It additionally included the brand new metal roll bars and intrusion plating (a defend to dam objects from breaching the cockpit) added to the left rear aspect of the cage behind the driving force’s seat, the very space the place Corey LaJoie’s automotive smashed into Newman’s Mustang on the Daytona frontstretch.
“Yeah, I’ve two bars named after me now, Newman Bars 1 and a pair of; that is good firm with the blokes who’ve the opposite bars in there with me, they usually haven’t got two!” Newman says with a proud chuckle.
It has develop into customary to call a brand new roll cage addition after the driving force whose wreck warranted its invention. Richard Petty’s legendary barrel roll down the Daytona frontstretch in 1988 introduced concerning the Petty Bar, and the Earnhardt Bar appeared after Dale Sr.’s 1996 Talladega crash that fractured his shoulder and sternum. The primary Newman Bar was added in 2013, alongside the roofline, after an airborne Carl Edwards landed on Newman’s roof in 2009 … and later that very same season Newman bought airborne himself and landed on Kevin Harvick’s roof … after which airborne Kurt Busch landed on high of him in 2013, all at Talladega.
“However once I actually watch my crash, you see fingerprints of these different guys in there,” Newman says. “I take a look at my crash and the way it began, and the flip into the proper and the nostril in underneath the wall, and I am guessing in the event you laid the paths out, technology-wise, it would be pretty just like Dale’s crash.”
And if he’d had that crash in the present day, however in Earnhardt’s automotive hitting Daytona’s wall of Feb. 18, 2001?
“I’d not be an alive racing driver in the present day sitting right here,” he says.
The sons of these different racers with roll bars named for them, Kyle Petty and Dale Earnhardt Jr., catch themselves watching Newman’s crash and nonetheless cannot imagine it. However their thankfulness additionally comes with a warning.
“We have made extra progress in 18 or 19 years than they made within the first 50 years of the game, so it’s a must to be pleased with that, however on the identical time I used to be fascinated by the response to Ryan’s accident,” Petty says. “It is like the entire world has forgotten how harmful motor racing is, and it’s best to always remember that, by no means, ever, ever.
“So are we standing on the sting of complacency once more? Is there one thing proper across the nook that we do not see that may sneak up on us once more? These are the questions that I ask at 3 o’clock within the morning once I get up in a chilly sweat, enthusiastic about Adam and enthusiastic about Dale.”
Provides Earnhardt Jr.: “You continue to gotta take a look at what you will have in the present day and go, ‘I am not OK. I’m not glad with this. This is not the end line of security. We will make this even higher.’ We will take a look at this in the future and go, ‘Dang, are you able to imagine they drove these automobiles? Look how unsafe that’s!’ We’ll discover an increasing number of flaws with what we’ve got in the present day, similar to we did prior to now.”
A few of that previous is method again in, properly, the previous, as in 20 years in the past on Feb. 18. However a few of it isn’t so way back, as in a single 12 months in the past on Feb. 17. The possibilities of somebody dying once more behind the wheel of a NASCAR race automotive are nearly sure. Motorsports can all the time be safer, however they may by no means be protected.
The distinction between that day, every time it comes, and the tragedies of 20 years in the past is that the NASCAR storage is now not so desensitized to demise that it’s going to take killing a Corridor of Famer to make it damage sufficient to instigate change. That change is going down on a regular basis.
Each NASCAR racer desires of carrying just a little little bit of Dale Earnhardt with them into the cockpit. Factor is, they already do. He is in each roll bar, seat belt, HANS system and wall that surrounds them.
“Once I take into consideration Dad, once I take into consideration his legacy, I by no means take into consideration, man, he could be pleased with the protection that he drove into the game,” Earnhardt Jr. says. “I am grateful for it. I am grateful for our sport being safer. I do know loads of drivers — Ryan Newman, me — we are able to thank Dale Earnhardt that we’re alive right here in the present day.
“However I simply take into consideration him right here, as if he was standing and respiration right here subsequent to us, what I imply? It sucks that he cannot be right here to fulfill my household, to know the place everyone is. If you wish to imagine that he is aware of that, then that is effective. I think about that he is aware of. However I wish to see him and listen to what his opinions are about our household. We’ll chew on that for a protracted whereas after which go into NASCAR.
“‘Dad, what do you consider all that? What ought to we be doing totally different? What ought to we give attention to to try to enhance these items we have happening?’ That is what I need. For him to be right here. That is what all of us need.”
Revisit this four-part sequence on the life, demise and legacy of Dale Earnhardt. Learn Half I on Earnhardt’s lasting legacy, Half II on the protection tradition earlier than Earnhardt’s crash, and Half III on the day of the Earnhardt crash.