CHILDRESS and Simpson trade barbs over seat belts

Friday, August 24th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) _ The issue of Dale Earnhardt's seat belts is heating up, with the late driver's car owner and the belt maker making conflicting claims.

The belts first came in question after NASCAR presented its report Tuesday on Earnhardt's death on Feb. 18.

Its investigation found that a combination of a broken seat belt, a collision with another car and the angle in which his Chevrolet hit the wall on the final turn of the Daytona 500 all contributed to Earnhardt' death.

The report also said the separation of the belt was ``not caused by driver adjustment.''

Nevertheless, immediately after the presentation, a representative of Bill Simpson said the belt maker told Earnhardt on more than one occasion that he was not using his belts correctly.

``Bill Simpson told him for years that the way he was using the belts was not safe,'' attorney Bob Horn said while Simpson sat silently beside him.

``Dale listened, but his response was to do it the way he wanted to do it.''

On Thursday, car owner Richard Childress denied such conversations ever took place.

``In the 16 years that Dale and I were together, Dale never said anything to me about any conversation with Bill Simpson or any of Bill's representatives regarding the installation of the seat belts,'' Childress said. ``Bill did speak to Dale and me on several occasions concerning safety issues, including gloves, shoes and full-face helmets.

``But I have checked with every crew chief that ever worked with Dale at RCR to see if any of them had been approached by Bill about incorrect seat-belt installation. Not one of them said he ever had.''

Simpson, who did not speak at Tuesday's news conference, reiterated the claim on Thursday and said he had witnesses to some of the conversations, including Robin Miller, a motorsports writer formerly with the Indianapolis Star.

``There is one guy who was present during those conversations, and it was Robin Miller,'' Simpson said. ``I'm not going beyond that because I'm not going to give up their names. But at least one guy will verify what I said. So that is two of us against one.''

Miller confirmed he was present at one of those conversations, which he said took place at Indianapolis Motor Speedway some time in the last two years.

``I was talking to Earnhardt about the HANS device, and Simpson came up and started talking to him about the way his seat belts were installed,'' Miller said. ``I can't remember exactly what was said, but safety was discussed in depth. Why would Simpson lie about this?''

As to the way the belts were installed, Childress said only that the way they were in the car during the Daytona 500 ``were installed behind the seat, in the same area they had been installed since 1986.

``Those belts in that position had held up through some very horrendous crashes,'' Childress said.

Kevin Harvick, the rookie who took over Earnhardt's car after his death, said he doubted conversations ever took place between Simpson and Earnhardt regarding belts.

``If Bill Simpson and Dale Earnhardt were such good friends, well, don't you listen to your best friend?'' Harvick said. ``As far as I'm concerned, it's a crock.''

But driver Jimmy Spencer said it was common knowledge that Earnhardt wore his belts differently because he liked to have the adjuster pulled up high on his waist.

``He liked to pull up on his belts because he felt more secure that way,'' Spencer said. ``Simpson warned him about it the same way he warned me about the way I was wearing my belts. It was common for Simpson to look around this garage at these cars and make suggestions as to how it could be safer.''

Other drivers have said Earnhardt liked to sit back away from the steering wheel and low in his seat, a style that could explain why the belts could have been installed in a way that varied from the instructions.

Simpson, weary of the subject, declined to discuss the specifics of Earnhardt's belts or his conversations with him and referred all other questions to his attorney.

``I'm not going to talk about my conversations with Earnhardt any more because I'm not going to give anybody any ammunition for anything,'' he said.

Childress said he wanted the entire issue to end.

``I feel that it is necessary to get my thoughts about this matter on the record,'' Childress said. ``However, I think we now all owe it to Dale, Dale's family, friends and fans to bring this matter to closure.''