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uploaded 4/2/2001

Earnhardt Commentary

Earnhardt Gone

The March TV MOTORSPORTS newsletter went to the printer before that tragic race at Daytona so no comment or report on Dale Earnhardt's death appeared in that issue. Since every other writer, knowledgeable or idiot, has written about it I guess I have to also. Parts of this commentary appeared first in the April TVM.

Motorsports events are extremely dangerous to both drivers and spectators. The operator of any machine is at risk for injury or death and so is anyone standing around when the machine is in operation. As soon as engines were attached to wheels people started competing with them. As automobiles became more sophisticated and useful, manufacturers took advantage of human competitiveness to make their products look better vs. those of other manufacturers. The rigors of racing certainly drove the automobile industry toward speed and reliability. The pneumatic tire, possibly the most complicated and useful device man makes, benefits hugely from the racing environment.

Turns out folks enjoyed watching people driving cars in competition. Racing became popular and when people were killed during races it was taken for granted that was the consequences of a sport with obvious risks. The Indy 500 earned its fame because it was a long, difficult race requiring intense dedication and extraordinary skill and determination. The frequent fiery crashes, often resulting in injuries and deaths, served to differentiate Motorsports from more sedate spectator sports. Fans at a baseball game only stand up during the seventh-inning stretch.

After WWII better materials and design practices reduced Motorsports injuries. Drivers began to wear helmets and use seatbelts. In the 50s roll bars and protective cages further reduced injuries. Composite materials using aluminum honeycomb, glass fiber, Kevlar, and carbon fiber reinforcement added strength and energy absorption to racecar structures. As a result we saw drivers walk away from accidents that would have killed them 10 years earlier. For a period in the 80s deaths became a rarity and racing appeared to be much safer than ever before.

Wake-Up Call

Then in 1994 Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna died in separate incidents at Imola. The FIA mandated massive changes in Formula 1 racetrack configurations and racecar design. I wonder if we would have seen the same fever for change if Roland had been the only driver to die. CART and the IRL incorporated many of the FIA rules changes.
But in the last few years several drivers have died or been seriously injured in CART and IRL crashes. Dale Earnhardt is the fourth NASCAR driver to die in the last two seasons. For some reason his death caused much more uproar than the deaths last year of Kenny Irwin, Adam Petty, and Tony Roper. Actually that really pisses me off!

The racing at Daytona is always tight. Current NASCAR engine and aerodynamic rules insure extremely close racing with drafting and slingshot passes. Dale Earnhardt was driving with his usual fierce style in third place behind the leader, Michael Waltrip, and his son, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. The senior Earnhardt raced in front of several cars fighting to get around him. Contact was inevitable. The 3 car hit the fence much the same as other cars have hit when the drivers then walked away. Not this time.

As in many tragic accidents several specific events had to happen to make this crash deadly: the close competition, Earnhardt's competitiveness, something wrong with a seat belt, an open-face helmet. Bill Simpson, the manufacturer of the seat belt and many racing safety products, has said that his seat belts don't fail. But something happened. Something in the installation or adjustment of the belts caused it to slip or fail. I can't imagine the nylon webbing actually breaking.

Dale could have done it all to himself. It was he who wasn't getting out of the way of Sterling Marlin and Ken Schrader. It was his decision to wear an open-face helmet. He might have been the one who left some slack in the seatbelt or got it tangled in some way. Dale Earnhardt was the guy who decided to get into that racecar that day.

He Was a Lucky Man

I envy Dale Earnhardt's life and his death. Though not a rabid Earnhardt fan, I respected his driving skills and ability to win. His rise from unschooled poverty to a position of leadership, wealth, and supreme athletic success demands admiration and respect. He earned his first NASCAR championship in 1980 when he was 29 years old. 20 years later he was still a championship contender finishing second in points last year. The sport changed enormously since his first championship but he won six more and seemed to be in the hunt for another title this season.
Even Earnhardt's death was heroic, giving no quarter, defending his position while his friend and son battled for the race win. I envy that quick, painless death in an age when most of us will end up deteriorating into old age and finally slipping away in some sterile hospital bed surrounded by machines and pierced by needles and tubes.

The world is not thick with honorable leaders and genuine heroes. Our TV screens and the pages of our newspapers are filled with the images and words of the crooks and cheats who run our country and our corporations. Professional athletes started out as heroes but have discarded that mantle in favor of spoiled whining and boorish behavior. Tennis, golf, and Motorsports are the only remaining major sports peopled by athletes you'd want invite into your backyard for a beer. Dale Earnhardt will be dearly missed.

NASCAR Looking Bad

Right after the Daytona race NASCAR announced a problem with Dale Earnhardt's seat belt. Now, a month later, we don't know any more than that. I think the NASCAR people are just doing things in their usual way but the lack of information when so many people want answers makes them look suspicious. Nature abhors a vacuum.

Bill Simpson says that belt didn't fail and I believe him. I've used seat belts myself and they don't break. Seat belt webbing relies on friction to hold against forces in one direction while being easily tightened in the other direction. It's up to the driver to make sure he's secure, but I've seen drivers continue to race even after a belt has come loose. Maybe that's what happened in this case.

While NASCAR's suspicious silence makes them look bad they're just doing what they always do, talk among the teams and suppliers until a direction or solution develops. But on or off the record they should be telling the racing media what's going on. We're not their enemies and it's insulting to be treated as an enemy.

So Who's to Blame?

Nobody is to blame! Every driver gets into the car and races acting on choice. Each driver is responsible for personal safety. The NASCAR rulebook RECOMMENDS a helmet and seatbelts so they aren't going to jump up and mandate the HANS device. Since Earnhardt's death many NASCAR drivers are wearing a HANS. It's their choice.

Danger and death is what makes racing--and racing people--special. Everyone working in racing knows the danger and uses that to focus their thoughts and energies. That's why race teams get things done that normal companies don't even try. A big reason why corporations sponsor race teams is so their employees, suppliers, and customers can come in contact with intense, dedicated, motivated people. They hope some of those qualities rub off. I wouldn't change a thing about racing.

The new TV contracts NASCAR made with FOX and NBC got them a lot of money and increased media exposure. Dale Earnhardt's death turned that exposure hugely negative. My only fear is, now that NASCAR and the other racing companies are publicly owned, some political zealot could decide to further a career by attacking racing on safety issues.


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