EARNHARDT'S death sparks difficult period for racing


Saturday, May 19th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Memorial Day weekend has long been a celebration of auto racing. It can't come fast enough this year for a sport that has endured a difficult three months.

In the nation's heartland next Sunday, 33 drivers will compete in America's most famous racing spectacle, the Indianapolis 500. That night, stock cars take center stage under the lights in North Carolina for the Coca-Cola 600, one of NASCAR's biggest races.

But while the racing goes on and more fans are watching than ever, not all is well in the sport that has been irrevocably altered by the death of Dale Earnhardt at the Daytona 500 and its aftermath.

``We lost a piece of our hearts on Feb. 18, and those hearts were already a little tender based on what happened last year,'' said NASCAR's director of operations, Kevin Triplett. ``But as far as health of the sport, things are going well. Are they going as well as they were Feb. 17th? No. That's not going to be the case for a while.''

The death of the man known as The Intimidator is merely the start of a list of racing's woes.

Earnhardt was the fourth NASCAR driver to die in a nine-month span. On April 29, CART was forced to cancel a race in Fort Worth, Texas, for safety reasons. The previous night, a fiery, 11-car crash in an IRL race reminded fans of the extreme danger involved at all of auto racing's venues, even though it didn't result in major injuries.

As a result, the sanctioning bodies in auto racing have been under unprecedented scrutiny. More than ever, they're fighting to maintain the confidence and support of both fans and drivers.

``If a driver loses trust over this deal, they shouldn't be here anymore,'' said former NASCAR driver Donnie Allison, who suffered a terrible head injury in a 1981 wreck in a NASCAR race at Charlotte. ``NASCAR doesn't want to hurt its drivers, and every one of us knows that.''

Still, since Earnhardt's death on the final lap of the Daytona 500, NASCAR has been accused of a multitude of conspiracies as it meanders through its slow investigation.

A week after the death, NASCAR thought it was helping drivers by telling them and the public that the seat belt in Earnhardt's car had separated. That raised more questions than it answered.

Although NASCAR never blamed the seat belt for the death, for a brief period the announcement shifted focus away from the theory that the much-publicized Head and Neck Support Device would have saved Earnhardt's life.

The HANS device is designed to reduce violent whiplash, the likes of which killed Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper and Earnhardt.

Already required by CART on its oval speedways, the HANS was used by only about six drivers at the Daytona 500; by April, 24 were using it.

``That thing gives you a 60 percent better chance of surviving a wreck like that,'' three-time Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip said last month. ``If NASCAR won't make it mandatory, they ought to at least send out a bulletin that says, 'We highly recommend the HANS device.'''

NASCAR continues to look into the effectiveness of the HANS.

``We're not going to react for the sake of reacting,'' NASCAR president Mike Helton said the day after Earnhardt's death _ a refrain NASCAR officials have often repeated as their investigation has continued.

Nowhere near as patient, the Orlando Sentinel commissioned an independent expert in head trauma to study Earnhardt's autopsy photos, in hopes of determining the cause of death. Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, took legal action to stop release of the photos.

Lawmakers and race fans debated the value of Mrs. Earnhardt's right to privacy versus the public's right to know. The Florida Legislature enacted a new law limiting access to autopsy photos, but not before a judge allowed an independent expert to look at them for the Sentinel's study.

That expert, Dr. Barry Myers, determined Earnhardt died when his head whipped forward violently after the crash. He stopped short of declaring that Earnhardt would have survived with a HANS device, but his theory ruled out the separated seat belt explanation.

A few weeks later, an emergency worker who was in the infield trying to rescue Earnhardt said the seat belt was intact when he arrived. NASCAR disputed that account, saying that worker never actually entered the car.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., stated he believed NASCAR's explanation that the seat belt was already broken when rescuers arrived.

Meanwhile, the seat belt maker, Bill Simpson, was subjected to death and bomb threats and sought a retraction from NASCAR.

On May 4 _ the same weekend the emergency worker described his version of the accident scene _ Helton called a meeting with drivers to discuss safety, then offered a terse statement to media, claiming NASCAR had ``no vendetta. We have no masterminded cover-up.''

He continued to remind people that NASCAR has been investigating the accident independently and won't release findings until the inquiry is complete, probably in August.

``It would be naive to think that regardless of what our findings show that that will be the end,'' Triplett said. ``It's unfortunate. But tragedy breeds some type of curiosity. In some cases, it's a morbid curiosity that does not go away.''

Meanwhile, drivers who have always been reluctant to criticize NASCAR are showing few signs of wavering, at least not publicly.

``When I left that meeting, I was never more proud of NASCAR,'' said Tony Stewart, who will drive in both the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600. ``They wanted the drivers to know why they are doing things the way they are and it showed us they really care for us.''

Safety issues forced CART to cancel the April 29 race at Texas Motor Speedway just minutes before it began. Traveling at speeds of more than 230 mph, drivers became dizzy and disoriented because G forces were almost twice as high as normal on the high-banked track.

Although done for the right reasons, the late cancellation made CART look foolish. Couldn't someone have figured this out before 57,000 fans had bought tickets and come to the track? Speedway officials filed a lawsuit.

The night before at an IRL race in Atlanta, 11 cars were involved in a fiery crash that _ unbelievably _ didn't cause a major injury.

It was a fortunate break for IRL, and through all the turmoil this year, it seems IRL has had the best luck.

It has had no major safety issues in its three races thus far. And suddenly, the sanctioning body that endured an ugly split with CART in 1996 is welcoming some of the biggest names in racing back to its showcase race, the Indianapolis 500.

With drivers like Stewart and Michael Andretti and owners like Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi among those showing up, the race has star power again.

Race fans can only hope Indy is a turning point for the 2001 season.

``We've been a terrible stretch, a horrible stretch,'' says Jim Freeman, executive director of the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. ``Everything goes in cycles, not just motorsports. I can't see it keeping on like this.''