The aftermath of Dale Earnhardt: ‘We made the sport so much safer. That’s the legacy’
NBC Sports will take a look at the life, legacy and long-lasting impact of Dale Earnhardt who died 20 years ago this week on the last lap of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, 2001. This is the final chapter in an oral history series that remembers “The Intimidator” though the voices of those who knew the seven-time Cup Series champion who remains one of the biggest icons in NASCAR history.
Three days before NASCAR’s biggest star was killed on NASCAR’s largest stage, Dale Earnhardt had a conversation about the safety feature that became mandatory after his death.
Dale Jarrett had begun wearing the HANS device that week at Daytona International Speedway, and Earnhardt waved over Jarrett from his neighboring spot in the track’s motorhome lot after their Daytona 500 qualifying race.
Over beers, Earnhardt had many questions. Was it comfortable? Did it impact peripheral vision?
But one stood out to Jarrett: Are you wearing this because you’re afraid of dying?
“I said, ‘No, I don’t think about that side of it in that respect, Dale,” Jarrett said while recently recalling the moment. “I think it gives me a better chance in a crash at an angle that might stretch you further than what your body can withstand. We talked about that for another six to eight minutes. At the time, it just seemed like a conversation. It obviously took on a whole new meaning a few days later.”
ESSENCE OF THE INTIMIDATOR: What Dale Earnhardt meant to people
‘THE TWO DALES’: Drivers recall what it was like racing the seven-time champion
BRAND AWARENESS: How ‘The Intimidator’ built a marketing empire for others to follow
DARKNESS AT DAYTONA: Remembering February 2001 at the World Center of Racing
And raises another question: Was Earnhardt close to donning the safety technology that some believe might have saved him?
“No,” Jarrett said firmly with a knowing chuckle. “He wasn’t close at that time. He got a lot of his ability to do the things he could inside a race car from how he sat and how he viewed things. That HANS device would restrict him from being able to do that. It would probably have affected him as much or more than anyone else that I knew driving cars at that time.
“I wore a HANS device in that Daytona 500 and every race after that for the rest of my career, but I don’t know how he would have found a way to adapt to that.”
Earnhardt’s death on Feb. 18, 2001 is credited with sparking the safety revolution (including HANS being mandated) that has yielded a 100 percent survival rate in at least a thousand crashes at NASCAR’s top three national series over the past 20 years.
But while his legacy inextricably will be linked with the longest stretch without a fatality in NASCAR history, Earnhardt also had a complicated relationship with safety during his career.
That’s illustrated by two memorable quotations from the seven-time Cup Series champion during the final full season of his NASCAR career.
During the debate in 2000 over “soft wall” technology (which eventually came to fruition with the SAFER barrier that used energy-absorbing foam to reduce crash impacts), the seven-time Cup Series champion famously said, “I’d rather they spent 20 minutes cleaning up that mess than cleaning me off that wall.”
But in the same season, Earnhardt also grumbled during the July race weekend at Daytona that drivers should stop complaining about speeds. “Get out of the race car if you’ve got feathers on your legs. Put a kerosene rag around your ankles so the ants won’t climb up there and eat that candy ass.”
In one of the final sitdown interviews of his life, Earnhardt summoned four sportswriters to his No. 3 hauler on Sept. 8, 2000 before a Friday morning practice at Richmond Raceway. NASCAR was on the verge of announcing restrictor plates (which Earnhardt despised) the next weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where Kenny Irwin Jr. and Adam Petty had died in crashes during the previous two NASCAR race weekends.
For the better part of an hour, Earnhardt alternately praised NASCAR and the industry for trying to enhance cockpit protection while also calling out what he saw as overreactions and “negativity” from “whining and crying drivers” (including rumors of a boycott). He also implied full-faced helmets might have caused injuries.
“I started going to racing as a kid, watching my daddy race at some damn race tracks that were dangerous,” Earnhardt said. “I saw a car hit a train rail track in Columbia, South Carolina, and it came spinning through the pits and cut a man’s legs off. It cut him down like a toothpick. We have cement walls to protect people behind the walls. Now we’re hitting the walls, and we’re worried about protecting the drivers.
“Let’s look at every safety aspect we can do to the cars, the walls, the drivers’ compartments. I’m not saying I’m an expert. I’m not saying I’m right or wrong. There are a lot of issues. There are a lot of things that we can all talk about and do to make things better.”
At the time, many initiatives already were in motion as the loss of Earnhardt was preceded by the deaths of Petty, Irwin and Tony Roper (in a truck series race at Texas Motor Speedway) during a five-month span.
“Clearly something wasn’t right,” said NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton, an outspoken safety advocate who helped spearhead many seat technology advancements during his driving career. “So conversations had started. A lot was happening. But it was happening independently.”
And then Earnhardt died, and everything seemed to happen at once.
By the end of the season, the HANS (invented by Dr. Robert Hubbard and Jim Downing) was mandatory, and carbon seats and cockpit cocoons soon became standard features. The SAFER barrier made its debut at Indianapolis Motor Speedway a year later and was installed at most NASCAR tracks within a few years. In January 2003, NASCAR opened a state-of-the-art R&D Center that primarily was focused on safety projects.
An infusion of engineering brainpower and doctorate degrees – namely experts such as Dr. John Melvin, Dr. Dean Sicking and Dr. James Raddin – collectively jump-started a remarkable era.
“It is a huge thing to process,” Kevin Harvick told NBC Sports. “The impact on the sport was second to none. As you look at Dale’s death, the next 20 years changed the way our sport looked from a safety and innovation side. Soft walls. Seats. Helmets. Gloves. Seat belts.
“Everything that we’ve done on the safety side is directly related to what happened with Dale Earnhardt. NASCAR realized they needed to invest in the stars of their sport because they didn’t need another situation like they had with Dale Earnhardt.”
In the final chapter of a weeklong oral history series recalling the legacy of Earnhardt 20 years after his death, NBC Sports explores how NASCAR made a quantum leap in safety -- as well as what some close to Earnhardt believe might be doing if he’d lived through the Daytona wreck:
Gary Nelson, Sprint Cup director from 1991-2001, oversaw R&D Center through 2006: Earnhardt was probably one of the tougher sells on anything new. He had a system that he trusted for his safety. It served him well for many years. He had an open-faced helmet, which is nonexistent nowadays. People look at a picture now of him with bubble goggles and an open-face helmet, and they just couldn’t imagine themselves driving a race car that way. The seat in his car was like from the ‘60s. It was hard to argue with the guy because he had such a record of surviving so many huge crashes over the years. He would tell you he’s proved his system. I’m saying, “Well, we’ve got this new system we think is better.” He’d say, “Where’s your data. Where’s your proof?” “Well, we did laboratory testing.” “Well, I did real testing.” Those kinds of conversations and attitudes were quite a job for us to try to change the sport around.
Ramsey Poston, managing director of communications for NASCAR 2004-11: Earnhardt was so powerful no one would say no to him. He basically ran the sport. It’d be like if Tom Brady were running the NFL. NASCAR was not going to push back on anything that Dale Earnhardt did or said. If he said the head and neck restraint obstructed his vision and was for wussies, then so be it. NASCAR wasn’t going to mandate it. They allowed him to strap himself in the way he did. The way his anchors were set way back for his belts. He was not a safety expert. That cost him his life. That’s where NASCAR had to really realize that this sport is bigger than any driver, and that it had a responsibility.
Jeff Burton: There were things happening, but they weren’t happening with the support of NASCAR. They were happening in spite of NASCAR. And when Dale was killed, you couldn’t hide from it anymore. I remember hearing: “Those young guys who got killed, their necks were too small. They weren’t strong enough and didn’t have enough muscles in their neck.” I heard all kinds of stupid shit. And when Dale was killed, and this is sad to say, no longer was it a coincidence. No longer was it just “Oh, that was a horrible thing that happened. It was dumb luck.” Now it was “Oh shit, this is a seven-time champion. This is a hero of our sport. This is the face of the sport. This is the future of the sport as a car owner.” I don’t want to say he was bigger than the sport, because no one is, but he was a big, big, large part of it. They couldn’t ignore it anymore.
There was a time that the rulebook said the helmet was recommended. They didn’t want to tell you to wear a helmet because if something happened, you might could sue them. There was a group of people working to try to make things better. It pissed some people off. Some momentum was being built, but it was being built slowly, and then when (Earnhardt’s death) happened, it went from “We don’t want to know about it. You guys handle it.” to “We’re going to take control of this.”
Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR chief racing development officer: We certainly weren’t blind to safety, but that incident accelerated a lot of things. Certainly accelerated the conversation around the HANS device that wasn’t immediately accepted. That was a fight with some drivers to say, “This is real, and you need to use this.”
Nelson: The resistance (to the HANS) was amazing; that people driving race cars didn’t trust this new system. On the SAFER wall, there was a lot of cost to that. So when you’re telling a track operator to spend money to put up a wall, they have a lot of questions on, “Will it actually work?” I think we did 19 full-size crash tests without a driver at full speed into a wall to develop the SAFER wall in Lincoln, Nebraska, with Dean Sicking and Jim Raddin and John Melvin. So we started running cars into the wall with crash-test dummies in them. So now we got all this data and go to the track and say, “OK, we need you to put this wall up,” and they’re like, “Well does it work? You’re asking me to spend millions of dollars on something you don’t know if it works?” I said, “Well, all the crash test dummies survived.”
Man, the resistance in each step of those things, that’s where my gray hair came from. I spent a lot of time on, “Why are you telling me to put this thing on when it’s uncomfortable on my head and neck? You guys don’t even have proof.” A lot of those conversations happened over the years.”
Dale Jarrett: I don’t know if drivers today go back and look at the older cars. In the 2000s, things were so different than looking inside a car today. I hope they’re appreciative of what they have because of that fateful day, and it taking Dale’s life. It’s probably the one thing in the sport that everyone from sponsors to NASCAR to car manufacturers, it didn’t matter at that time if you were Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge, it didn’t make any difference who you were with. Everyone came in as one to make the sport safer understanding that this could happen at any time. If this could take away the biggest superstar we had, then it could happen to anyone. This was a huge blow.
One of the first public signs that NASCAR was moving in a new direction came at an Aug. 21, 2001 news conference in Atlanta, Georgia. Releasing a two-volume report on Earnhardt’s death that spanned more than 300 pages, NASCAR announced that incident data recorders would be installed in cars to record every impact in future crashes.
Poston (who recently blogged about the day): It was the first time NASCAR really thought about having a message and confronting this serious issue. When you look at the story, the death of Dale Earnhardt is on Feb. 18, but the bookend date to that is Aug. 21, 2001 when the accident investigation report was released. There was no expectation that NASCAR would provide any useful or transparent information at all. They were considered one of the worst when it came to the safety of drivers, and they pledged that day to become the best. That included things like the R&D Center, SAFER barriers head and neck restraints, a full re-examination and rebuild of the car, which has now happened three times.
NASCAR made promises that day and kept to them. Now 20 years later, there hasn’t been another on-track fatality. That’s an amazing record.
O’Donnell, NASCAR chief racing development officer: The culture is what Dale Earnhardt changed. Certainly, the HANS device and all those things were huge, but it’s our ability to each and every day talk about technology, talk about safety and continue to have people in the industry approach us about those ideas vs. just talking about how to make the car go faster.
Jarrett: So many different people came in and had ideas that were helpful that never had seen a NASCAR race. They got involved knowing that their intelligence in their field of work could help the sport. It was amazing to be a part of it. Some of these people none of us knew or ever heard of, but they were willing to get involved understanding the magnitude of this, and that something had to be done. They brought in a knowledge and a group of people and a team to put us in a direction we hadn’t even discussed. We were looking at making changes, but this was accelerated, and they were wholesale changes.
Andy Petree, championship crew chief for Earnhardt in ’93-94 who had become a team owner in 2001: After he got killed, we made the cars 75 percent safer the next day. In our shop, it was a real wakeup call. We changed the seats, the way we mount seatbelts, we changed the headrests. We started using all that outside help. They’d been trying to help us. We really weren’t that receptive until (Earnhardt’s death). Then it was like, “OK, we need help.”
Cal Wells personally invested a million dollars in carbon seat development, working with race car chassis manufacturer Reynard on sled testing. After receiving NASCAR approval, Wells ran out of money for further development, but Hendrick Motorsports became a manufacturer and distributor of the safety technology as carbon seats began replacing aluminum.
Cal Wells, former CART team owner who entered NASCAR in 2000: We started the project before we ever started racing NASCAR because I’d lost Jeff Krosnoff (who was killed in a 1996 race in Toronto driving for Wells’ CART team). I felt there was a lot of room to evolve the safety capsule for the drivers. NASCAR had Steve Peterson who was very open to it. And Tom Gideon, who was then at GM and later at NASCAR. They were really focused on how to improve the package and still get around all the other economic and perception obstacles about what it would take to improve the safety. So those two guys at NASCAR really drove it under Mike Helton.
Burton: John Melvin gave a presentation (in 2000) that Ford Motor Co. put together for drivers, and he said, “NASCAR’s seats are inadequate. That’s a whole other story that we can’t really get into today.” So when the meeting was over, I introduced myself and said, “What did you mean by that?” He started the conversation about how Indy cars had a tub. A cocoon. And that created this amazing advantage from a safety standpoint so that you could keep your head and everything lined up with your body. I started thinking about it and started looking at pictures and thought, “Damn, that guy’s right.” I got involved with Cal Wells, who had started designing the first composite seat that had a tremendous amount of research done on it. It was taking forever to get done. And so I went to Butler Seats and Brian Butler, and I designed the first full-containment head surround.
Wells: I was blessed to have an IndyCar background, so I had a clearer line of sight to the evolution of the car and how it’s assembled. It’s not just here’s a roll of carbon fiber, put some resin on it and go. There’s quite a bit that went into the development of those seats, and then Mr. Hendrick really took off and did an incredible job with it.
Rick put the resources behind it with his staff and just rocked. They did a great job of taking something that was very specific for one size athlete and making it great. You look at how many people had died of basal skull fractures, and it was hundreds in race cars. It takes someone like an Ayrton Senna getting killed (the three-time F1 champion who died in a 1994 crash) to change the rules. I hate to say it that way, but it’s true. NASCAR signs this incredible TV contract and then loses their star player almost right away. You lose those icons, and it rocks the sport emotionally and commercially. You’ve got to protect them.
Burton: SAFER barriers and HANS get a lot of conversation, but the truth is it’s everything collectively: a full-containment seat, coupled with the HANS, coupled with the understanding of how belts work and are mounted in the cars and then the SAFER barriers. For a head-on impact, a HANS is great, but rarely do you hit head-on. The more of an angular hit you get, the less effective the HANS becomes. So the containment seat coupled with the HANS, those two things working together, that’s what has moved the ball. The HANS gets all the credit, but you need both to have containment in all directions.
I ran the first full head surround system (in the 2001 Daytona 500), and you could have sold tickets to all the people coming down there and looking at that thing. People thought I was crazy. “Your body’s going to move. Your head’s not going to move. You’re going to break your neck.”
Petree: We made the sport so much safer, and it’s obvious the last 20 years the safety record we have in NASCAR. That’s the legacy Dale leaves. It’s probably not too much unlike Senna getting killed in Formula One. It did the same thing there. It was just a moment in time when things really changed in the sport. Things got way safer, and the drivers today can look back on as a real turning point.
Nelson: I made a lot of trips to hospital after races, and I considered all of those guys as friends. Losing Clifford Allison and John Nemechek and Neil Bonnett and Kenny Irwin and J.D. McDuffie and Grant Adcox and Rodney Orr. And then guys like Jeff Purvis and Mike Alexander and others that during that period lost their ability to continue their careers. I personally knew all these guys, so I really jumped at the opportunity when NASCAR put me in charge of the R&D and safety side of it in 2000, and so now we’re 20 years since, and I don’t think anyone’s lives have been ended since then.
Imagine the difference of that 10-year period of 1991-2001 and the 20-year period of 2001 to now. I’m just proud that I was part of that effort to turn that record around, and I had no idea it would be as successful as it has been in those days. I’m just really happy that I was a part of it.
Melvin, who died in 2014, is among those who since have speculated Earnhardt could have survived the crash with proper safety equipment. “The Intimidator” would have turned 70 in April, and many of his contemporaries openly have wondered what he’d be doing now.
Terry Labonte in 2019: I think about the sport today and where it’s at and where it’d be if he were still here, and it would have a completely different look if he was still here. I think there’s no doubt about it. I think DEI would be a powerhouse of a team. I think the sport would be different because he had a lot of influence on NASCAR and some decisions that they made. Whether it would be better or worse, I don’t know. But it would be different. I think DEI would still be a powerhouse team with three to four cars.
Kyle Petty: He’d just have his team and Dale Jr. would be driving for him and all would be right in the world. That team would be on its way to being a Hendrick and a Gibbs and contender year in and year out.
Don Hawk, former president of Dale Earnhardt Inc.: (DEI) was built to be run by Dale’s children. I’m not sure Kelley, Kerry and Dale Jr. really even know how much their dad had pre-planned for their future. And by his untimely death, it just never unfolded.
Burton: I’m pretty sure he’d be heavily involved and be telling everybody what they’re supposed to be doing. Listen, the sport missed him. He had the ear of Bill (France Jr.) and a lot of people. The joke at the time was, “No boat, no vote.” If you didn’t have a boat, you didn’t get a vote. When I heard that, you know what I did? I got a boat. Not as big as Dale’s.
Jarrett: Certainly, there’s no doubt in my mind that DEI would be still around, and he’d be still a voice in the sport. He could adapt to change. There would be things he would want done differently – as was the case all the time – but I think knowing him, even though he’d have this race team and this voice, his goal was to get to where he loved to hunt and fish and be on his boat, and he was going to spend a lot more time in doing that.
Even though he did a lot of it, he was looking forward to those days he didn’t have to be at the racetrack, and he had earned the right to have some time away. He didn’t play golf, but he loved to hunt and fish. Even at 69, he could certainly still be doing that on a regular basis. Just wish he would have gotten to enjoy that part of his life. And then watch his kids. They’re all successful in their own way. He’s looking down smiling at that, knowing they made their way. Even though he opened the doors for them in a lot of different ways, they’ve done their part to carry on that family name.
Dustin Long contributed to this story