In the mournful days, weeks and months after February 18, 2001, NASCAR was faced with a challenge unlike any it had ever faced. It had to fill the massive void left by the death of its most popular and influential driver. And it had to assure similar tragedies would not occur again.
A popular narrative suggests the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. saved countless other lives. It was frequently raised this past February, on the 20th anniversary of his fatal accident on the final lap of the Daytona 500, the last fatality suffered at NASCAR’s highest level. That notion somehow makes the death a little easier to accept, as if adding martyrdom to Earnhardt’s legacy.
“The impact on the sport was second to none,” Kevin Harvick told NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan. “Everything that we’ve done on the safety side is directly what happened with Dale Earnhardt. NASCAR realized they needed to invest in the stars of their sport because they didn’t need another situation like they had with Dale Earnhardt.”
That’s not entirely inaccurate.
Conversely, that’s not entirely fair to NASCAR. The governing body was arguably more attuned to safety measures than the drivers were two decades ago.
“It’s been a culture shift,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer. “It’s evolved. Safety was something even prior to the Earnhardt crash not a lot of people wanted to talk about it. If you talked about it, it was kind of a taboo. Post that incident, it became part of the culture. It became something you were expected to talk about and improve every day.”
Recall that NASCAR had three deaths in the nine months before Earnhardt’s crash, with Adam Petty, Tony Roper and Kenny Irwin Jr., all dying from a basilar skull fracture, as did Earnhardt. A basilar skull fracture is a break of bone at the base of the skull, occurring with a violent whiplash because the unrestrained head is still traveling at speed while the body is restrained by safety belts. The HANS (Head and Neck Support) was invented in 1986, the U-shaped collar connecting the driver’s helmet to the rest of the seat harness, so at impact the driver’s head is traveling the same speed and endures the same G-forces as the torso.
One of the greatest critics of the HANS device: Dale Earnhardt, who famously derided his fellow competitors who complained about safety, saying “put a kerosene rag around your ankles so the ants won’t climb up there and eat that candy (butt).”
Drivers found all sorts of reasons to refuse. Too bulky. Too claustrophobic. Restricted vision. Or, in the macho culture, they were just wimpy to use.
That changed after February 2001. Orders for the HANS device poured in, from all levels of motorsports.
ESPN Senior Writer Ryan McGee, whose 20th anniversary coverage of Earnhardt’s death was unparalleled, wrote this: “Superman was dead. His death forced a garage full of people who have always prided themselves on their bravery to grapple with a sensation that is especially foreign among race car drivers. They felt vulnerable.”
A decade ago, a slightly cavalier Car and Driver writer said, “Nowadays, thankfully, motorsports safety is taken seriously. No driver with a brain worth protecting would consider racing without a HANS device.”
“Racers are some of the hard-headedest people there are,” as former driver Brett Bodine told me when I toured the R&D center a decade ago. Bodine, then working as a liaison between the R&D effort and NASCAR teams, continued, “They’ll certainly let a personal opinion get in the way of good data.”
“Even when you think you’ve done all you can, it’s not even close,” said Dr. John Patalak, now the Senior Director of Safety Engineering at the R&D Center, a futuristic complex in Concord, N.C.
Patalak pointed to three “buckets” in which safety efforts have been focused and improved — and life-saving. One is the SAFER barriers, two is the vehicle itself and its roll cages and driver compartment and three, of course, “and the most influential would be the driver restraint system,” he said.
Ryan Newman, who walked away from a horrific crash at the 2020 Daytona 500, has been the recent poster boy for the Earnhardt Affect and what NASCAR safety measures can mean. Two days after his crash, social media exploded with a photo of a brain-bruised, barefoot Newman walking hand-in-hand with his daughters.
Newman was walking away from the very hospital to which Earnhardt had been rushed 19 years earlier, his life already taken, the sport he dominated a little more awakened.