The last fatality in a major NASCAR series race was February 18, 2001.
By dying in a crash 15 years ago on the last lap of the Daytona 500, seven-time Sprint Cup champion Dale Earnhardt became a legend on a scale few American athletes ever attain. Earnhardt excelled by living longer and closer to the edge of risk though determination, bravery and sheer love of the competition. He had more crashes at higher speeds, more amazing recoveries of errant cars, more breathtaking maneuvers to win races and more controversies caused by running into other drivers.
It was the stuff of cinematic heroes played out in real life. At an annual pre-season charity event in the 1990s featuring all Sprint Cup drivers signing autographs in a Winston-Salem, N.C. coliseum, the line for Earnhardt's table would snake through the entire building. "Everybody," said driver Jimmy Spencer, "wanted to meet John Wayne."
There was nobody like Earnhardt, whose aggressive style of driving ultimately changed the standard for what it took to win and schooled others like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. But it took his fatal crash to capture national attention beyond the borders of NASCAR Nation, which helped bring the sport into a six-year phase of packed, overbuilt grandstands and stellar TV ratings.
Earnhardt's death also helped launch a safety revolution within NASCAR and helped sustain it in other U.S. series and around the world. The outcry about his fatal crash was so overwhelming NASCAR officials quickly realized they could ill afford to lose more star drivers due to the lack of safety. There hasn't been a fatality in a major NASCAR series since February 18, 2001.
While SAFER barriers, seats and car construction have been key elements in that safety push, the crucial element has been the HANS Device, the first head and neck restraint. Without a head restraint, all the other safety systems would not be able to prevent a basal skull fracture. In an ironic bookend, Earnhardt died from just such an injury because he decided not to wear one.
The revolution actually began in 2000, when a driver in each of NASCAR's three major touring series was killed by a head injury. The regular beat writers in what was then called the Winston Cup knew the sport like a farmer knows his own land and were regularly calling for NASCAR to implement the HANS Device. "NASCAR Idles While Drivers Die" ran one headline. NASCAR officials were regularly receiving calls and letters in its offices from racing participants, too, suggesting ways to deal with the problem.
In this atmosphere, the Intimidator had little patience for the talk of slowing cars at Daytona in the aftermath of three driver deaths. "Tie kerosene rags around your ankles so the ants won't crawl up and eat your candy ass," he said, challenging any driver who wanted to restrict engine horsepower.
Jim Downing, the founder of HANS Performance Products, met this version of Earnhardt in the NASCAR hauler during testing at Daytona in January of 2001. Downing was there to talk with Mike Helton, in his first full season as NASCAR president, about the HANS Device.
"Dale came through the door of the NASCAR hauler, just walked right in while I was talking to Mike," said Downing of his first meeting with the driver known around the garage as Ironhead. "There was a little desk in there and he threw his leg over the corner of it and kind of sat down. He looked at us with that bristly mustache and a grin as if to say, 'What are you guys talking about?' The message was pretty clear he didn't want to have anything to do with the HANS and didn't want Mike listening to what I had to say. Earnhardt sitting there pretty much brought the discussion with Mike to an end."
When it came to garage politics, Earnhardt's energy and ambition always pushed the limit much like his driving style. He didn't necessarily have mood swings, but he was mercurial. He could be gruff and uncooperative, flat out refusing to answer questions in media conferences, or he could joke about being scared while riding the ragged edge due to a car's ill handling. It was always an open question of whether he was more concerned about wrecking the car or losing the race than about dying.
There definitely wasn't any death wish. Earnhardt was already planning a post-NASCAR career in which he would run Corvettes in the 24-hour races at Daytona and in Le Mans, France. In the recently released book NASCAR Nation, Dale Jarrett recalls him and Earnhardt talking about death before the seven-time champ said he didn't think he could wear the HANS Device without further explanation.
Jarrett was one of a handful of drivers who wore a HANS during that year's 500. Dr. Robert Hubbard, the inventor of the device and Downing's partner, was in the garage in the days prior to the race helping Jarrett and another former champion Bill Elliott get comfortable using his head restraint. Comfort and proper set-up in the cockpits were crucial to drivers using a HANS and not always easily attained.
"I was walking back and forth between the cars of Jarrett and Elliott and half way between the two was Earnhardt," said Hubbard. "I was within a few feet of Earnhardt and he just didn't want to hear about the HANS. He wasn't interested. I learned through a decade of experience with the HANS, particularly with drivers, that if people don't want to listen to what you have to say, you're wasting your breath."
In this respect, Earnhardt was similar to many other star drives in major series around the world. In the wake of two driver fatalities in 1999, the CART Indy car series tried to implement HANS use for the full season in 2001 but drivers balked and it was mandated for only ovals and not road courses, the majority of the schedule. CART driver Juan Pablo Montoya wondered aloud during the testing if the HANS device might save him, "but leave me crippled so I couldn't race."
Formula 1 announced in 2000 that head restraints would be mandatory, but due to driver and team resistance the mandate was not implemented until 2003.
NASCAR did everything but mandate the HANS before the 2001 season, inviting manufacturers, who were buying the devices for drivers, to host lectures about the HANS by safety expert John Melvyn during winter testing. "Earnhardt," said Melvyn, "was conspicuous by his absence." In addition to its own legal concerns, NASCAR was worried that forcing drivers to change their cockpits to accommodate the HANS might be counterproductive to safety.
Indeed Elliott elected not to wear at HANS at Daytona despite the assistance from Hubbard. "We just couldn't get the seat right for Bill to be comfortable wearing it," said his team owner Ray Evernham. "But I can tell you he was wearing it at (the next race in) Rockingham."
By the summer race at Daytona in 2001, all but a handful of drivers were wearing a head restraint. Prior to the final race at the Talladega Superspeedway in October of that year, NASCAR mandated head restraints for the Sprint Cup, but only after previously implementing changes for harnesses, which were crucial to the success of the HANS, and after allowing teams to figure out how to make drivers comfortable in proper seat arrangements, also needed for the device to work.
Only Earnhardt, who expressed interest to NASCAR officials in the "soft walls" that eventually became the SAFER barriers, knew if his response to the HANS was an effort to retain a competitive advantage - like using an open-face helmet with better visibility. Perhaps he considered an element of danger to be in his favor. It was just as likely that he simply didn't believe in the strange looking device with its high collar and yoke, the same response Downing and Hubbard had received from many star race car drivers around the world. Perhaps he thought it was unsafe to have this unfamiliar device in the cockpit.
In any event, it was unstated but clear that Earnhardt would not be wearing the HANS Device on board the black No. 3 during that year's Daytona 500, a decision that would cost him his life - and help save hundreds of others. In the week after Earnhardt's death, HANS Performance Products took more orders for its safety device than in the previous 10 years, the first major step toward universal acceptance of head and neck restraints.