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Safety changes brought about by Dale Earnhardt’s death
After the death of Dale Earnhardt, following a last-lap accident in the 2001 Daytona 500, much commotion was made about safety in NASCAR. A NASCAR-led investigation made most of the details of the accident and Earnhardt's resulting death public, from information on a torn seat belt to calculations on the impact of the car with the wall. Safety was suddenly a concern - in spite of the number of crash-related deaths seen prior to Earnhardt's (11 in the decade before alone), the last one took the life of one of the greatest drivers ever.
While NASCAR didn't overreact with sweeping changes and new safety mandates, changes did occur. When results of the investigation were released, there was no clear-cut determination of whether a head-and-neck restraint would have saved his life. A number of drivers, however, did start using them, and six months after the Earnhardt accident, most of the field was wearing them. Later in 2001, NASCAR would finally mandate the use of the HANS (Head And Neck Support) Device after a similar crash in the ARCA Racing Series killed driver Blaise Alexander.
News of the torn seat belt and its possible link to Earnhardt's death led some teams to switch from a five-point safety harness to a six-point safety harness in their cars. The six-point harness wraps two belts around a driver's legs, as opposed to one belt between the legs with a five-point harness, and restrains the pelvis area in a frontal crash; restraining the pelvis leads to less chest compression. Six-point harnesses are now part of the re-design of NASCAR stock cars, starting with the Sprint Cup Car of Tomorrow in 2007.
Tracks also began installing a "soft wall" called the SAFER (Steel And Foam Energy Reduction) Barrier. The design is meant to absorb some of the energy from a crash, as well as reduce damage to the car(s) involved in the accident. As a racing fan in Western New York, I was familiar with the "soft wall" concept, as one of the local speedways, Dunn Tire Raceway Park (formerly Lancaster Speedway), used them for many years before the concept came to NASCAR.
As a long-time auto racing fan, I think these changes were necessary to keep up with the ever-increasing speeds and with improving technologies. I don't think NASCAR is any more or less dangerous now than it was in 2001 - there have been fewer crash-related deaths since Earnhardt's passing, but there are still spectacular crashes that leave fans holding their collective breath.
"Polyethylene foam - soft walls," circletrack.com
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