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The death of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. during the Daytona 500 on February 18, 2001, was a highly-publicized event that generated intense interest from the media and resulted in various safety improvements in NASCAR auto racing. Dale Earnhardt's last gift 5 years after the crash, That's Racin

Earnhardt was a seven-time series champion and one of NASCAR's most storied drivers. Earnhardt was the fourth driver to die in NASCAR competition following Adam Petty's death in May 2000.

Following Earnhardt's death and the subsequent investigation of the events leading to his death, NASCAR began an intensive focus on safety that has seen the organization mandate the use of head-and-neck restraints, oversee the installation of SAFER barriers at all oval tracks, set rigorous new inspection rules for seat-belt and seats, develop a roof-hatch escape system, and eventually led to the development of a next-generation race car built with extra driver safety in mind, the Car of Tomorrow.

Circumstances of Earnhardt's death

Rules of Competition

Dale Earnhardt died while competing in the 2001 Daytona 500, a NASCAR-sanctioned automobile race at Daytona International Speedwaymarker. NASCAR sanctions required the use of a carburetor restrictor plate for races held at the track. In 2000, the year before Earnhardt died, NASCAR instituted additional restrictions to the springs and shocks used on the cars, causing Earnhardt to complain to the media, "[The rules] took NASCAR Winston Cup racing and made it some of the sorriest racing. They took racing out of the hands of the drivers and the crews. We can't adjust and make our cars drive like we want. They just killed the racing at Daytona. This is a joke to have to race like this."

In response to criticism such as Earnhardt's, NASCAR developed a new aerodynamic package for the cars competing in Winston Cup Series races at Daytona and Talladega. In the initial running of this aerodynamic package at Talladega, Earnhardt passed seventeen cars within four laps to win the fall 2000 Talladega race. The 2001 Daytona 500 was the first 500 mile race run at the track with this package, which was designed to keep cars bunched up close together and to allow more frequent passing at high speed.

Events of the Race

Following the start of the 2001 Daytona 500, Earnhardt led several of the opening laps, and continued to be a front-runner throughout the race. As the race entered its final laps Earnhardt and his familiar black #3 car were running in third, with two of his race team's cars, the #15 NAPA Chevrolet driven by Michael Waltrip and the #8 Budweiser Chevrolet run by his son Dale Earnhardt, Jr., running first and second in front of him. Behind Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr., Earnhardt was blocking the attempts by Sterling Marlin in his #40 Coors Light Dodge to pass. With less than two laps remaining, Fox commentator Darrell Waltrip noted that "Sterling has beat the front end off of that ol' Dodge [Marlin's car] trying to get around Dale [Earnhardt Sr.]".

As the cars entered Turn 3 on the final lap, Earnhardt still held third and was running in the middle lane of traffic. Marlin was behind him and running the bottom lane, while Rusty Wallace's #2 Ford was directly behind Earnhardt and Ken Schrader was above Earnhardt riding the high lane in his #36 M&M's Pontiac.

For reasons unknown, Earnhardt's car veered abruptly down the track, and the left rear corner of the car made contact with Marlin's front bumper. This contact caused Earnhardt's car to turn sharply to the left. Earnhardt's car drove off the track's steep banking, onto the flat apron. The car then turned sharply to the right and headed back up the banking toward the concrete retaining wall. Seconds before the car hit the wall, Schrader's car collided with Earnhardt's.

Almost instantly, as the front of Earnhardt's car made impact with the wall, the right-rear wheel assembly broke off the car, the passenger-door window blew out of the car, and the hood pins severed, causing the hood to flap open and slam against the windshield. No other vehicles impacted Earnhardt's car after it hit the wall and Schrader's car seemed to push Earnhardt's as it slowed to a stop. The cars of Earnhardt and Schrader slid down the track banking and came to a rest on the infield grass inside Turn 4. Schrader exited his car and went to check on Earnhardt, but seconds later was seen frantically waving for help as Earnhardt was unresponsive.

Meanwhile, the race continued despite the accident, with Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. holding the first and second positions to the finish. Wallace finished third, Marlin seventh, and Earnhardt and Schrader were credited with finishing twelfth and thirteenth respectively.

Details of the Crash

A subsequent investigation revealed that Earnhardt's car struck the concrete retaining wall at a critical angle between 13 and 14 degrees, at an estimated speed of 157-160 mph. Earnhardt was killed instantly.

Following the accident, Earnhardt was cut from his car and taken directly to Halifax Medical Center by ambulance (since he had no vital signs and the injuries were obviously life-threatening, he was never taken to the infield care center which is usually mandatory). Earnhardt was pronounced dead at 5:16 p.m EST, reportedly surrounded by his wife Teresa Earnhardt, his team owner/friend Richard Childress, and his son Dale Earnhardt Jr.

About 2 hours later, at a press conference, NASCAR President Mike Helton made the formal announcement to the world, saying, "Undoubtedly this is one of the toughest announcements I've personally had to make. After the accident in Turn 4 at the end of the Daytona 500, we've lost Dale Earnhardt."

Injuries sustained

The official cause of Earnhardt's death in the medical examiners autopsy report was listed as "blunt force injuries of the head". It noted, among other things, that Earnhardt sustained:


Dale Earnhardt's death received widespread media attention. One newspaper called the day "Black Sunday". Grieving fans congregated at the headquarters of Richard Childress Racing and Dale Earnhardt Incorporated the night of the accident, as well as the track where Earnhardt died. Earnhardt was featured in the following week's Time Magazine, and video from the race was played on nearly every major United States televised newscast. Earnhardt's funeral was telecast live on multiple television networks, including CNN and Fox News Channel.

Earnhardt's death resulted in both a police investigation and a NASCAR-sanctioned investigation. In a reversal of previous NASCAR policy, nearly every detail of the investigation was made public.

In the days following the accident, Sterling Marlin received hate mail and death threats from fans who blamed Marlin for Earnhardt's death. Earnhardt's son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., absolved Marlin of responsibility and asked everyone who loved his father to stop assigning blame for his death.

Earnhardt's #3 car was immediately retired by team owner Richard Childress. Childress made a public pledge that the number would never again adorn the side of a black car sponsored by GM Goodwrench, the color scheme and sponsor Earnhardt had driven since 1988.

Earnhardt's team was re-christened as the #29 team, with the same sponsor (GM Goodwrench), but the car was adorned with a reversed color scheme (white body with black numerals and a black stripe on the bottom) was used for races at Rockinghammarker and Las Vegasmarker. For the race at Atlantamarker, a new GM Goodwrench scheme was introduced, with angled red stripes and a thin blue pinstripe, resembling the AC Delco Chevrolets driven in the Busch Series.

From 2003 until 2006, when the Goodwrench sponsorship ended, the #29 car was painted in black and silver, bearing greater resemblance to the machine that Earnhardt piloted but with a more contemporary flair. A small #3 decal is placed alongside the #29 to honor Earnhardt and the team's legacy.

Childress' second-year Busch Series driver Kevin Harvick was named as Earnhardt's replacement driver, beginning with the race following Earnhardt's death, the Dura Lube 400 held at North Carolina Speedwaymarker. Hats bearing the #3 logo were distributed to everyone at the track to honor Earnhardt. The Childress team wore blank uniforms out of respect but as Harvick's performance improved, the regular GM Goodwrench Service Plus uniforms returned. Dura Lube 400 pole sitter Jeff Gordon gave a "missing man" formation during the pace laps, a custom used in motorsports for mourning.

Fans honored Earnhardt by holding three fingers aloft on the third lap of every NASCAR Winston Cup race. Meanwhile, NASCAR's television partners also went silent for the third lap, a practice that was repeated until the 2002 race at Rockingham.

NASCAR allowed Earnhardt's Daytona points to be combined with Harvick's points for the rest of the season for purposes of the Winner's Circle and owner points. The team still scored a top-ten finish for the 2001 season.

Cause of death controversy

At a news conference five days after the fatal crash, NASCAR officials announced that the left lap belt on Earnhardt's seat belt harness had broken. NASCAR's medical expert, Dr. Steve Bohannon, said he thought the faulty belt had allowed Earnhardt's chin to strike the steering wheel, causing a basilar skull fracture, killing him. This led to speculation that Earnhardt would have survived the wreck had the seat belt not broken.

First responders to Earnhardt's crash maintained that the seat belts were loose, but the lap belt was not broken or cut when the belts were unbuckled. However, NASCAR's investigation concluded that each of the medical workers attending Earnhardt after the crash reported the buckle position of Earnhardt's harness was off-center by four to eight inches, which would have been impossible had the lap belt not broken.

A subsequent medical investigation revealed that belt failure did not play a significant role in Earnhardt's death.

At the time of Earnhardt's death, Simpson Race Products—the company which manufactured Earnhardt's seat belts—manufactured the seat belts used in nearly every NASCAR competitor's machine. Bill Simpson, the founder of Simpson Race Products, maintained that the belt had failed because it had been installed in an unapproved fashion in order to increase Earnhardt's comfort, an allegation that had been supported by some who were familiar with the situation.

The Orlando Sentinel, particularly Sentinel sportswriter Ed Hinton, attempted to acquire Earnhardt's autopsy records and photos for study, autopsy records normally being public documents in Floridamarker, but Earnhardt's widow, Teresa Earnhardt petitioned a judge to seal the records. After a short court battle, it was mutually agreed to appoint Dr. Barry Myers, an expert on crash injuries at Duke Universitymarker, to independently study Earnhardt's death. On April 10, 2001, Myers published his report rejecting NASCAR's explanation, finding that Earnhardt's death was the result of his inadequately restrained head and neck snapping forward, independent of the broken seat belt (making the question of proper or improper installation irrelevant).

Philip Villanueva, a University of Miamimarker neurosurgeon who had previously analyzed the crash for the Sentinel before the autopsy records were available, said he had reached the same conclusion, but had wanted to examine the autopsy photos to be certain. Dr. Steve Olvey, medical director of CART for 22 years, and Wayne State Universitymarker crash expert John Melvin also agreed with Myers' report. Simpson's founder, Bill Simpson, called the report "The best news I've heard in seven weeks. I've been living in daily hell."

On the same day as Myers' report was made public, NASCAR announced its own investigation, after having remained silent for six weeks since the accident. When the official NASCAR report, which had cost over a million dollars, was published on August 21, 2001, it concluded that Earnhardt's death was the result of a combination of factors. Those factors included the last-second collision with Schrader's car, the speed and angle of impact, and the separation of the seat belt as being contributing factors. It was also noted that investigators could not determine whether a head and neck restraint device would have saved Earnhardt's life, and that airline-style black boxes would be mandated for all vehicles in order to better understand the forces at work in a crash such as Earnhardt's.

After NASCAR's report, Bill Simpson retired, citing the stress as "too much." The Simpson company attorneys asked NASCAR to unequivocally assert the following in regards to the broken lap belt found in Earnhardt's car:

  • The belts were of high quality in workmanship and there were no design or manufacturing defects.
  • The belts met the NASCAR rule book requirements.
  • The belts, as installed, did not conform to manufacturer installation requirements.
  • The separation of the left lap belt was not a result of design or manufacturing defect, but caused by improper installation.
  • The belt separation was not the cause of Earnhardt's death.

NASCAR, however, did not respond.

Safety Improvements

There were several safety improvements made in the sport of stock car racing following Earnhardt's death.

In response to the speculation about a broken lap belt in Earnhardt's car, many teams migrated from traditional five-point safety harnesses to six-point safety harnesses.

At the time NASCAR's report on Earnhardt's death was published, there were no rules requiring drivers to wear uncomfortable head and neck restraints. NASCAR president Mike Helton stated that "We are still not going to react for the sake of reacting." However, NASCAR did wish to "encouraged their use." By August 19, 2001 41 out of 43 drivers were wearing them at the Pepsi 400 by Meijer at Michigan International Speedwaymarker, just two days before NASCAR's report came out.

Two months later, after a crash during an ARCA race that killed driver Blaise Alexander, NASCAR mandated the use of head and neck restraints. Ironically, Earnhardt's eldest son Kerry Earnhardt was involved in the crash that killed Alexander, but Kerry was not injured.

In addition to head and neck restraints, NASCAR began requiring the use of soft walls at race tracks in which its top touring series compete. The soft walls feature foam and move slightly upon impact, dissipating energy and resulting in less forces being exerted on the driver during an impact.

Soon after Earnhardt's death, NASCAR began developing the Car of Tomorrow, which is currently used in competition in the Sprint Cup Series. The design of the Car of Tomorrow incorporates the result of research conducted in the aftermath of Earnhardt's death.

Autopsy photos

On February 19, 2001, the Volusia Countymarker Medical Examiner performed an autopsy on Dale Earnhardt's body. The unusual act of notifying NASCAR and Teresa Earnhardt was made prior to releasing the records sought by members of the public and media.

Three days later, Teresa Earnhardt filed a legal brief in the Circuit Court of the Seventh Judicial Circuit, in and for Volusia County, Florida (Case No. 2001-30373-CICI Div. 32). Once the complaint was filed, the Medical Examiner was barred from releasing the public records, including autopsy photographs, pertaining to Dale Earnhardt, until a formal hearing on the merits of Teresa Earnhardt's case could be heard.

On February 28, March 13, and March 16, 2001, the Orlando Sentinel, Michael Uribe, founder of, and Campus Communications, Inc., publisher of the University of Floridamarker's student newspaper The Independent Florida Alligator, filed motions to intervene into the Earnhardt v. Volusia litigation in order to uphold their rights to inspect and copy public records held by the Volusia County Medical Examiner to include the photographs and videotape of Dale Earnhardt's autopsy examination.

On June 12-13, 2001, a trial was then conducted before Judge Joseph Will. Will eventually ruled against Uribe and CCI's original public records requests and constitutional arguments to inspect and copy the medical examiner files pertaining to Dale Earnhardt, to include autopsy photographs. Judge Will's ruling set forth in motion an extensive legal battle later fought in the appellate courts by both Uribe and CCI seeking to deem the denial of their public records request unconstitutional under Florida State and Federal laws. Then on December 1, 2003, the United States Supreme Courtmarker declined to hear Uribe and CCI's appeal.. Thus, the Florida Legislature's March 29, 2001 law preventing release of Dale Earnhardt's public record autopsy photographs would remain in effect.

Although not widely reported, in July 2001, former American Gladiator and Huntersville, NCmarker resident Jonathan Byrne claimed to have obtained copies of the autopsy photographs and records. When he attempted to sell them to tabloid newspapers, Byrne was arrested for possession of stolen property. The investigation quickly determined that the documents were forged and the photographs were from a different, but unidentified autopsy. Byrne eventually pled guilty to minor misdemeanor charges and served no jail time.

The Florida Legislature's March 29, 2001 law, also known as the Earnhardt Family Protection Act, was sponsored by Senator Jim King (R-Jacksonville) and changed Florida's previously long standing and historically open public records laws from that day onward. The Earnhardt law deemed Florida's medical examination autopsy photographs, video and audio recordings exempt from public inspection without the expressed permission from applicable next of kin.

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