As we near the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's passing, an event some are recalling with tears and others with resignation, the fatal wreck itself is coming under a new wave of scrutiny. And because of all the safety improvements that NASCAR undertook in the wake of its most famous star's death, it's worth considering whether those improvements would have saved Earnhardt's life in the first place.
Jim Downing of HANS Performance Products discussed the wreck on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 that cost Earnhardt his life. The HANS (Head and Neck Support) Device holds a driver's head and neck steady during sudden impact, and that sudden impact is what killed Earnhardt. He was not wearing a device at the time of the wreck, and such devices are now mandatory.
Although Downing cautioned that accident reconstruction is a highly complex science, he believes that "when Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s car hit the wall and the belts from his safety harness were loaded by the impact that a HANS Device would have kept his head back. That likely would have produced a better outcome under the different scenarios that have been proposed by experts."
Downing also noted that the fact Earnhardt's wreck appeared mild by NASCAR standards had nothing to do with the potential for serious injury. Earnhardt only hit the wall at about 44 miles per hour, but the sudden stop was what caused the fatal damage.
"It's not how fast you go, but how quickly you stop," Downing said. "Trying to get that message across to short-track racers and drag racers has been especially difficult."
More to come on Earnhardt's passing in the coming weeks, obviously. We'll take stock of the man's life, his death and what it all means, and then we'll all move on.
- Dale Earnhardt