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Study concludes Earnhardt died from head-whip

By Associated Press
August 10, 2001
12:09 PM EDT (1609 GMT)

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -- The NASCAR investigation of Dale Earnhardt's fatal wreck has found that cars aren't safe enough in crashes, but it does not blame a broken seat belt for the death of the racing great, the Orlando Sentinel reported Friday.

The investigation also essentially confirms the findings of the court-appointed independent expert who determined Earnhardt died of a sudden head-whip when his car hit the wall Feb. 18 on the final lap of the Daytona 500, sources close to the investigation told Sentinel auto racing writer Ed Hinton on the condition of anonymity.

NASCAR told The Associated Press that the stock car sanctioning body would have no comment on the story or any other speculation before the release of its report Aug. 21.

NASCAR, however, said it would not comment on the story until it releases its report Aug. 21 in Atlanta. NASCAR president Mike Helton and chairman Bill France Jr. declined to comment to the Sentinel. It also was unclear what NASCAR will do with the results of the findings.

The four-month investigation has been the most far-reaching independent inquiry in NASCAR's 52-year history. The Sentinel reported three key points from the investigation based on the information provided by the sources:

- NASCAR race cars, built by racing teams and inspected by NASCAR, don't have enough crush resistance in the front ends to adequately protect drivers in crashes. Redesigning probably will be recommended, with energy-absorbent bumpers and the aluminum-foam "crush box" under development.

- Earnhardt's fatal skull fracture will be not be blamed on a broken seat belt. Investigators have essentially confirmed the findings of Dr. Barry Myers, the independent expert appointed to settle a lawsuit between the Sentinel and Earnhardt's widow, Teresa. Myers in April found that Earnhardt died of a violent forward head whip. He said the seat belt, made by Simpson Performance Products, would not have caused the fatal injury even if it had been broken in the crash. Bill Simpson, head of the Charlotte, N.C.-based company, resigned last month, saying the stress of the controversy "got to be too much."

- Emergency medical technician Tommy Propst might have incorrectly concluded that Earnhardt's lap belt was intact when he arrived at the crash scene. Earnhardt's death was the fourth in NASCAR in a nine-month span and focused national attention on the organization's record on driver safety.

Five days after Earnhardt's death, NASCAR announced a broken seat belt had been found in Earnhardt's car. Dr. Steve Bohannon, a physician employed by Daytona International Speedway, theorized that the breakage of the belt caused Earnhardt's head to move forward and strike the steering wheel, causing his fatal injury. But Myers concluded April 9 that the belt in April that the belt, even if it broke during the crash, didn't cause Earnhardt's death.

That same day, NASCAR announced an expanded investigation using "internationally acclaimed experts" and promised the results in August. Bohannon later recanted his theory, deferring to Myers' expertise.

NASCAR has refused to divulge the identity of its experts or the results until the investigation is complete.