Earnhardt’s Death Still Resonates 10 Years Later

DEEP IMPACT: One of the safety innovations that evolved following Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash in 2001 was the development of SAFER Barrier technoloy, now a standard at every major motor speedway in North America. (IndyCar Photo)

Work on a next-generation car (that would eventually see competition in March 2007) began almost immediately. The NASCAR chassis was, for all intents and purposes, the same as it was back in the 1950s, with truck-arm rear suspensions and a rigid frame. Thousands of man-hours and computer time later, the Car of Tomorrow was born.

Wider and taller than the old cars, the CoT also featured a cockpit that was four inches closer to the centerline of the chassis. Those four inches, from the left-side frame rails in, were replaced by energy absorbing foam blocks for side impacts. It has worked, despite an annoying early tendency to catch fire from the heat generated by the exhaust headers.

Frontal impacts, which were involved in all of the fatal crashes, were studied from every angle imaginable, and the front clips were designed to channel impact energy away from the occupant.

In addition to the head-and-neck restraints, many advances in seat technology were made in the years following Earnhardt’s death. Carbon fiber technology, readily used in open-wheel formula cars for many years, was one choice; aluminum seats were beefed up to hold drivers in place much more snugly than the old-style seats did.

Whether carbon fiber or aluminum, seats sprouted headrests on either side of the driver’s head, covered in impact-absorbing hard foam in various thicknesses. The seat-belt placement and the standards for safety involving the life-saving straps were codified.

The other safety improvement grew out of a concept that was already being researched in the world of open-wheel racing: soft walls. Officials of the Indy Racing League had introduced the PEDS Barrier at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1997, and out of that grew the SAFER Barrier system that is now standard equipment at every major motor speedway in North America.

Startlingly simple in design, the SAFER barrier consists of boilerplate steel sheets with triangles of energy-absorbing foam blocks spaced every so often. When the cars hit the SAFER barriers, the foam dissipates the impact as the steel plates are shoved inward.

As a result, the walls do indeed move when hit, and the impact is lessened by a good bit. Less energy translates to the chassis and, therefore, to the drivers.

Earnhardt’s death against Daytona’s hard concrete was, in fact, due to a myriad of factors. A rigid car hitting a hard wall at a steep angle was part of it, and the driver’s safety equipment — open-faced helmet and seat belts configured in the age-old way (bolted to the floorboards instead of to the frame behind the driver’s shoulders) — was lacking the one component that might have saved his life: a head-and-neck restraint.

It cost Earnhardt his life, and the three other drivers who died before him (Alexander was killed at Charlotte in an ARCA crash, also while not wearing a head-and-neck restraint) as well.

Earnhardt’s death was both a tragic passing and, oddly enough, a dynamic catalyst for change.

For the legions of Earnhardt fans, it was as if the sun had failed to rise on Feb. 19. And, as it happened, the rising of the son (Dale Earnhardt, Jr.) took on a near-mythic intensity. Earnhardt Nation became Junior Nation, and its ranks are still more powerful than any other single driver’s following.

This week, you’ll see a rather large number of Dale, Sr. apparel — hats, T-shirts, flags — at any race on the schedule. That’s 10 years after the fact.

It’s been 10 years, but Dale Earnhardt lives on. When you’re watching the Daytona 500 this year, whether in person or on TV, remember the man and his legacies. The first came about because of what he did on the track and in the sport; the second came about following his death, by spurring development of a 21st-century racing car with updated technology to hopefully prevent such a spate of fatalities from ever happening again.

Ten years gone…from the day the racing died and was reborn.