Earnhardt's Broken Seat Belt

Friday, February 23rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ROCKINGHAM, N.C. – Dale Earnhardt's lap belt was found broken after the crash that killed the stock car racing champion near the finish line of the Daytona 500, NASCAR officials said today.

Earnhardt, 49, might have survived Sunday's crash if the cloth belt had held, a doctor said.

"A broken left lap seat belt came apart," said NASCAR president Mike Helton. "We don't know how, when or where, yet. We will continue our investigation."

Dr. Steve Bohannon, head of emergency medical services at Daytona International Speedway, speculated that with the broken belt, Earnhardt's body could have been thrown forward and to the right, thrusting him into the steering wheel.

Bohannon, who tried to save Earnhardt's life as the driver sat slumped in the wreckage, said Earnhardt's chin might have hit the steering wheel, causing the major head injury that killed him on impact. A skull fracture ran from the front to the back of his brain. His sternum, eight ribs on the left side and left ankle also were broken.

"If his restraint system, his belts, had held, he would have had a much better chance of survival," Bohannon said.

Earnhardt's seat belt was made by Simpson Safety Products in Mooresville, N.C., former crew chief Larry McReynolds said. Owner Bill Simpson, a former Indy car driver, did not immediately return a phone call for comment.

The company is a leading manufacturer of safety products for NASCAR.

"The Simpson belts have always been fine, never a problem," said McReynolds, who worked with Earnhardt in 1998 when the driver won the Daytona 500 in his 20th try.

Like most drivers at Sunday's race, Earnhardt had shunned the use of the U-shaped HANS device, for Head And Neck Support, which many drivers find bulky and uncomfortable. The device fits around the neck and is attached by strap to the helmet and frame of the car.

"I do support further neck and head restraints, but I'm not convinced the HANS device would have made a difference in this case," Bohannon said.

Following the NASCAR news conference, Earnhardt's son Dale Jr. said he will drive in Sunday's race at North Carolina Speedway in a car owned by Dale Earnhardt Inc.

The son finished second in Sunday's race, moments after Earnhardt crashed.

"I miss my father and I cried for him out of my own selfish pity," he said. "We just have to remember he's in a better place that we all want to be."

Richard Childress, Earnhardt's longtime car owner, said the seat belts were standard and were new when the car was built last November.

Gary Nelson, the Winston Cup director, said the lap belt was part of a five-point harness and that the webbing near the lower left buckle came apart. He would not say whether the material was cut, frayed or otherwise damaged.

"All we know conclusively is the belt came apart," Nelson said. "We've never seen it, we've talked to people in the business, and they say they've never seen it in 52 years of NASCAR racing."

Meanwhile Friday, Childress confirmed that his Busch series driver, Kevin Harvick, would take Earnhardt's place on the team for the season. His No. 29 car will carry the same Goodwrench sponsorship and will be painted white. Kevin Hamlin will continue as crew chief, Childress said.

NASCAR does not retire numbers, but Childress said he would never again race Earnhardt's black No. 3 car.

The death of the popular Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion, in the last lap of the Daytona 500 stunned the racing world and led to calls for better safety measures.

Earnhardt was buried in a private service on Wednesday in his hometown of Kannapolis. On Thursday, thousands of people gathered to honor him at a memorial service.

Helton said NASCAR was not contemplating any safety changes for Sunday's race at North Carolina Speedway. He said experts were still looking at Earnhardt's battered Chevrolet and will also study the broken belt.

He said information on the broken belt will be passed on to crew chiefs in the Winston Cup and Busch series here and at a truck race next week at Homestead, Fla.