INVESTIGATION over, now what?

Wednesday, August 22nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ATLANTA (AP) _ The exhaustive six-month investigation into Dale Earnhardt's death is finally over. Now the real work begins for NASCAR, which still must find a way to make its sport safer.

NASCAR released its inquiry into Earnhardt's death on Tuesday, finding that a variety of factors _ including a broken seat belt _ all played a part in the fatal accident on the final lap of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18.

In addition to the details of the accident, the report made several recommendations as to how NASCAR can improve its sport.

None of them is immediate and none is guaranteed to prevent another death.

``We are still not going to react for the sake of reacting,'' NASCAR president Mike Helton said. ``There's not a bulletin getting ready to go out this afternoon to change walls at race tracks or roll bars in race cars.

``But there was an effort that began this time last year, and that became very aggressive as we were given opportunities in a very tragic way to understand things that we never understood before.''

In its two-volume report, NASCAR said that beginning next season it will install ``black boxes'' in cars, similar to flight-data recorders on airplanes, to help understand the forces during crashes and improve safety.

NASCAR will also use computer models to design safer cars and will be involved in testing of race track barriers. The organization will commission a study on restraint systems to take a closer look at seat-belt strength.

NASCAR also will open a research center in Conover, N.C., sometime next year and will continue to work with experts on car safety.

However, the report contained no recommendations on changes to cars or barriers, and NASCAR said it will not require drivers to wear head and neck restraints, despite encouraging their use.

Earnhardt was not wearing a restraint when he was killed, but NASCAR said it was unclear whether the device would have saved him. Use of the devices has dramatically increased since his crash; 41 of 43 drivers wore them in Sunday's race.

``We are pleased that a majority of Winston Cup drivers now use them,'' Helton said. ``But we are not completely satisfied. We have intensified our efforts with drivers, equipment manufacturers and outside experts with the goal of helping all drivers find a system in which they feel comfortable and safer.''

Many of the drivers _ who heard the report and the suggestions Tuesday morning _ said they were satisfied with the direction NASCAR is headed in.

``We're all doing everything we can do to make the sport as safe as it can be,'' said Kyle Petty, whose son, Adam, was the first of four NASCAR drivers to die in on-track accidents in the past two year.

``As long as were running at high rates of speed, though, racing is never going to be 100 percent safe. That's just a fact of our sport. As long as everybody is working to make it as safe as it can be, I don't know that we can ask for much more.''

Meanwhile, no concrete reason for Earnhardt's death came out of the report, which cost NASCAR more than $1 million.

Dr. James Raddin, one of the lead investigators, said the conclusion of the report is that ``there were a number of factors in which the timing came together'' to cause Earnhardt's death.

Raddin said one finding was that Earnhardt's left lapbelt broke from the force of slamming into the concrete wall at about 160 mph, allowing the driver to be flung further forward and to the right than if the entire five-point seat-belt harness had remained intact.

He added, however, that the study found the collision with the car driven by Ken Schrader before both slammed into the wall might have played a major role in the death of the seven-time Winston Cup champion.

Earnhardt was thrown to the right, and his fatal injuries apparently came when his head turned, his helmet rotated on his head, and the left rear of his skull was left bare to hit the side of the steering wheel, the rear of the seat or both, the report said.

In finding that the fracture started with a blow to the back of the head, Raddin disagreed with a court-appointed, independent medical examiner who determined the fracture was caused by a violent head whip.

That examiner, Dr. Barry Myers of Duke, studied Earnhardt's autopsy photos and concluded earlier this year that seat-belt failure ``does not appear to have played a role'' in his death.

As for the seat belt, Raddin ruled out that is was cut by rescue workers as they tried to remove Earnhardt from the battered car. Five days after the fatal crash, NASCAR said a broken seat belt had been found in the car.

``The physical evidence is clear,'' said Raddin, who displayed a blown up photo of Earnhardt's seat belt. ``This was not a cutting of a belt afterward. This was a belt that separated under load.''

Raddin, a director with San Antonio-based Biodynamic Research Corp., attributed the break to a phenomenon called ``dumping,'' which is when the webbing is pulled or moved to one side of the adjustment device through which the belt webbing travels.

When a dumped belt is under stress, it can separate and tear across the entire webbing.

Raddin concluded that the dumping was not caused by driver adjustment because the marks on the left lap belt showed it was tightened in a symmetrical fashion.

The controversy over the seat belt, made by Simpson Performance Products, led to the resignation of the founder of the Charlotte, N.C.-based company. Bill Simpson quit last month, saying the stress ``got to be too much.''