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Requiem for a Champion

December 31, 2001--

The anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's death approaches. It is not an occasion for celebration or commiseration, but a time to contemplate what might have been and what can be.

The referenced release, dated February 18, 2001, which was distributed at that Daytona race, is recalled as a retrospective on that dark day to consider, with the perspective of a year, what it can tell us. The death of the irreplaceable and unforgettable Dale Earnhardt has inspired initiatives in safety full of promise. As a tribute to him, the momentum must be maintained and the lost opportunities of the past avoided.

The Feb. 18 release deals directly with the two principal factors in that momentous crash. One is an energy absorbing wall of a design that will work in the opinion of some of the acknowledged best judges of what will work. Names on request, but suffice to say they include the most prominent race surgeons, engineers and drivers including an SAE Fellow and three World's Champions.

Oval Wall Barrier
They understand that the oval wall retrofit, the Compression Barrier, is completely unlike the snag-prone "soft walls" that are penetrated locally and "pocket." These are reported to be under test, at great cost, by academics, highway civil engineers and Ph.D.s, new to racing, who are happy to be rewarded for learning on the job. At some point they will realize that the Compression Barrier, with its low-friction steel beam car/barrier interface, is the valid design that has been in the literature since 1994. They are approaching it now with reports of plans to test steel plates for the car/barrier interface, not realizing it will have to be on the order of one inch thick to prevent distortion.

However, the most cursory review of the Compression Barrier would convince any fair-minded critic, and indeed it has, and would confirm the conclusion of our panel of advocates that the concept is sound.

It would be endorsed in the same way that the Displaceable Guardrail is immediately understood by the most maladroit, inept and non-mechanical observer who examines it. These outsiders immediately accept that skis slide and it follows that the skids of the barrier also slide. Without benefit of an engineering discourse, they sense that surface friction and the inertia of the assembly would absorb the force of impact.

In-Car Driver Protection
The second pertinent factor described in the Feb. 18 Daytona release unfortunately appears to be too unconventional and comprehensive in its detailed treatment for the establishment to undertake. It is the in-car driver protection system, the Driver Capsule, that addresses multiple aspects of the problem. Despite their posture as proponents of the scientific approach, laboratories, engineering agencies and other potential sponsors apparently lack the foresight and/or the enterprise to confront the task and they opt out, distancing themselves from low tech activities that entertain only cheap and instantly gratifying quick-fixes. Science is too slow and expensive for such clients, or indeed for the millionaire drivers and the plush sanctioning bodies who, incidentally, would benefit most.

The Crash
No. 3 crashed at 156 MPH but it was not stopped by the wall from 156 MPH. In fact, it was a glancing impact at 13 to 14 degrees and the change of velocity was minor in terms of frequent NASCAR crash speeds that do not result in injury.

The wall-induced deceleration was reported to be 43 MPH, and 24.5 Gs has been calculated from the same report that failed, for reasons not explained, to release the Gs that were generated - this when the level of Gs is the one axiomatic measure of impact severity accepted in accident reconstruction. So we're on our own, and with the givens of 43 MPH and a crash duration of .08 sec., it looks like 24.5 Gs, but you can do the math.

Further evidence of the moderate severity of No. 3's crash is the amount of energy that propelled the car on down the track after impact with the wall for a long tire-smoking but unspecified distance. This huge amount of energy was dissipated in the slide and not transmitted to No. 3. Exactly how much energy was dissipated would be known if the post-crash velocity had been revealed. The figure undoubtedly was determined from the seven cameras by which the velocity at every other stage of the crash was derived.

At the modest levels indicated, either the forgiving wall or the in-car driver protection described in the Feb. 18 release could reasonably be expected to have saved his life - as would have the HANS. Certainly everyone concerned recognizes by now that the HANS was an inspired concept that has brought to the real world a new principle and a new era for in-car driver protection. The racing community, and a number of drivers in particular, owe Jim Downing and Bob Hubbard our enduring gratitude.

Rear View
These concepts were first presented to the FIA Safety Committee in London on Dec. 5, 1994, the year Senna was killed and a commitment to drastic improvement in racing safety was made. In response, further detailed presentations backed by videos showing then-current counter-productive practices, with animations of the proposed remedies described herein, were made at two of the SAE Motorsport Engineering Conferences in Detroit, at the International Council for Motorsport Sciences in Toronto and many more - all to no avail. In every case, the assembled professionals enthusiastically urged early implementation, however officialdom was cool to the non-traditional concepts and what they may have taken to be an invasion of their turf, and sponsorship was not forthcoming.

Outside The Loop?
How is it possible that sponsorship to develop these approved safety mechanisms has not materialized? That is a baffling question when Allianz AG, the huge German insurance company, has committed $24 million to the Williams Formula One team to improve racing safety with the objective of eventual public road application.

The FIA has designated 317 million pounds for the same purpose.

Ford and GM have dedicated millions for black box inertia recorders for the IRL and CART, while Daimler Chrysler and the FIA have generously supported research, most recently for fine tuning of the HANS.

NASCAR would benefit on all levels, from consumer advances in driver protection to public relations, by promoting effective safety initiatives, but instead has committed its enormous assets to civil engineering and biomechanics research agencies with no racing experience.

CART has its problems, but for a sanctioning body that rates safety as its number one priority, it could find the relatively minor funding required for a safety program.

The IRL is highly solvent but unresponsive with its in-house staff and an entrenched agenda.

A Call To Action
A message to sponsors - it's never too late! You know you will be lucky if your car wins once a season, and only a few are that fortunate. But if you sponsor safety, at every event you are the sponsor of the most important issue in racing - you win every weekend! Help is a call away.

Text of Feb.18, 2001 Press Release

Copyright ©2016 by Race Safety, Inc. Portions copyright John Fitch. All Rights Reserved.