Earnhardt's lap belt failure irrelevant?

In spite of reports that Dale Earnhardt's lap belt webbing may have melted before his fatal crash at last weekend's Daytona 500, most sources familiar with the racing safety and construction believe that any such failure would have been immaterial...

In spite of reports that Dale Earnhardt's lap belt webbing may have melted before his fatal crash at last weekend's Daytona 500, most sources familiar with the racing safety and construction believe that any such failure would have been immaterial to his survival.

The lap belt material can melt if left lying on the floor after a practice or qualifying session, as the exhaust pipes running underneath the car can heat the floorboards to extreme temperatures. However, the key factor in Earnhardt's death was his violent head movement, not lap belt failure.

On the other hand, Dr. Robert Hubbard of Michigan State University, the inventor of the HANS restraint system, believes that the system would have had a good chance of saving the NASCAR legend's life.

Dr. John Melvin, a well-known racing safety expert and biomechanical engineer, said, "There's a good chance that his head whipped and then the belt broke." He also provided his conclusions to the NASCAR officials who contacted him after the incident.

The fatal basal skull fracture was caused by violent head movement, something that HANS is designed moderate -- and an injury that was a leading cause of road deaths until shoulder belts were made mandatory in the 1960s. Basal skull fractures have now killed eight of the last nine NASCAR drivers to lose their lives, as the belt systems restrain their bodies effectively, but offer no support to the head.

Jeff Burton, one lf the leading safety advocates among NASCAR's Winston Cup drivers, also questioned NASCAR's current set of aerodynamic and engine restrictions as a potential cause of the crash itself.

"The fact that Dale Earnhardt got in that wreck was based on those rules," claimed Burton. "The rules did not kill him, but something went wrong, and Dale paid the price for that. But the reason he got into that wreck was based on the fact that we had restrictor plates and wickers and all that. There's no denying it. And surely that's what caused the 18-car wreck as well. That's what that kind of racing is going to produce -- big wrecks."

The question now will be what NASCAR's reaction will be on the safety issues. With Earnhardt's death following on the heels of those of eight other drivers, the series no longer has the option of ignoring safety concerns.

-Motorsport.com staff

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Jeff Burton