How the Dale Earnhardt tragedy made NASCAR safer — and saved Ryan Newman

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This is the final installment of a four-part series on the life, death and safety legacy of Dale Earnhardt, 20 years after his fatal crash at the 2001 Daytona 500.

THE WORLD HAS not seen Ryan Newman‘s 2020 Daytona 500 race car in nearly a year. The last time any of us saw that Roush Fenway Racing-constructed Mustang, we thought we were staring at a coffin.

The car that had been in the lead with the checkered flag in sight was upside down on the infield grass, twisted and on fire as safety crews crawled all over it, frantically working to save the unconscious driver inside, 42-year-old Newman, hanging limp from his seat belts.

But Newman sees that car all the time. The mangled white, black and blue remains of the No. 6 Ford sit in a barn on his sprawling property in Statesville, North Carolina. If close friends or family ask to see it, he’ll show it to them, though he doesn’t allow photos. He doesn’t want it to become a tourist attraction. He wants it to be an educational tool.

On the night of Feb. 17, 2020, while he was being carried from the Daytona racetrack in an ambulance to nearby Halifax Health Medical Center, that car was towed back to the track’s garage. There, NASCAR safety officials gave it an initial inspection, trying to dissect what went wrong — and what went right — during the horrific accident that sent the 3,300-pound machine into the wall and onto its roof, only to be launched more than 10 feet into the air when it was driven through by an onrushing car.

Over the next few weeks, while Newman recovered from a brain bruise and miraculously little else, the car was in Concord, North Carolina, at NASCAR’s Research and Development (R&D) Center, where every piece of every wrecked NASCAR stock car is examined, photographed and scanned into a computer alongside data downloaded from a “blue box” incident data recorder (IDR) and video from the high-speed camera mounted on the roll bar, pointed directly at the driver to detect every movement of every fiber of their safety systems and, most importantly, their heads and necks.

Once everything has been digested by the computers, the crash is re-created virtually, again and again, as the R&D team utilizes every bit of the technology that the National Transportation Safety Board applies to investigating plane crashes. Newman himself even stopped by, stepping in behind the top-secret pull-down doors where the car was being kept, to try to make sense of how and why he was alive.

By summer, the crumpled No. 6 car was sent back to Roush Fenway Racing. The team asked the driver, who had returned to racing, if he’d like to have it. Newman said yes.

Every now and then, he walks out to take a look at his 2020 Daytona 500 ride. He doesn’t remember anything about the crash, or even about that day except for having lunch with his parents before going to the track. But he has pored over the car so many times and watched the video even more. He earned a degree in vehicular engineering from Purdue, taking classes during the week while racing sprint cars on the weekend. When he looks at that car, that mind is in overdrive, constantly trying to CSI what happened, how everything around him, all of that metal, rubber and foam, moved and bent and crushed in just the right way to keep him alive.

Sometimes he even goes full Robert Duvall in “Days of Thunder.” He talks to his race car in a barn.

“I feel like that car is a trophy of something that saved my life. Now, it could have cost me. My life was probably millimeters away or a half a G away, however you want to call it, but it’s there and it saved my life,” Newman says in an interview for “E:60 Presents — Intimidator: The Lasting Legacy of Dale Earnhardt.”

“It’s a credit to all the people in the industry,” he continues. “Not just this year, not just the people that built that race car. But the last hundred years of building race cars and technology. The guys that first staggered door bars and first put foam inside of a helmet instead of leather. You talk about all the things that have happened in the last hundred years of racing and safety …

“Those people collectively saved my life.”

Atop that roster of safety saviors is Dale Earnhardt. The Intimidator’s safety legacy has arguably had a larger impact on the sport than even his racing résumé. From 1989 until his death in the final turn of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, 2001, nine drivers were killed across NASCAR’s top three series. Earnhardt’s was the fourth fatality over a heartbreaking span of only nine months.

In the 20 years since Earnhardt’s death, that number is zero.

THOSE WHO WORKED in the sport before the 2001 Daytona 500 and still work in the garage today frequently find themselves wrestling with the before and after of NASCAR’s mentality toward safety. That feeling was especially raw for those who witnessed Newman’s 2020 crash and instantly recognized the uneasiness of those uncertain hours between that accident and the announcement that his injuries were non-life-threatening.

Steve O’Donnell, now NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, made the Newman announcement. On Feb. 17, 2020, he was high atop the speedway in Race Control. On Feb. 18, 2001, the day Dale Earnhardt died, he was down in the Daytona 500 Victory Lane as “the hat dance guy” who made sure the race winners wore all the correct sponsor caps for all the right photographs.

“In the mid-to-late 1990s, there were a lot of incidents, a lot of trepidation. Safety was a tough conversation, and it became something that you almost didn’t want to talk about it. It wasn’t cool to talk about it,” O’Donnell recalls. “Post-Dale Earnhardt’s passing, that conversation shifted. Everybody was all-in on, ‘How do we fix this? We have to fix it.’ It became OK to talk about it as a group. Now you are expected to do it.”

That shift started the night Earnhardt died, when the phones started ringing at Jim Downing’s shop in Atlanta with calls from previously defiant racers, asking the co-inventor of the HANS device how they could purchase one of his head and neck restraints. From the time they went on sale in 1991 through Earnhardt’s death a decade later, Downing and brother-in-law Robert Hubbard sold fewer than 300 of their HANS devices, specifically designed to prevent a basilar skull fracture, the injury that killed Earnhardt. After the 2001 Daytona 500, they exceeded that number in less than a week.

“When Earnhardt died, that needle moved as far as it could go. People stopped reacting and got proactive.”

Kyle Petty

At the end of that week, while thousands of mourning race fans gathered outside Dale Earnhardt Inc. in Mooresville, North Carolina, like it was Graceland, Cup Series drivers showed up at the North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham wearing the HANS, the more rudimentary Hutchens device and a science-fair exhibit of extra nets, webbing and race seat attachments, all aimed at bracing the head and body.

Superman was dead. His death forced a garage full of people who have always prided themselves on their bravery to grapple with a sensation that is especially foreign among race car drivers. They felt vulnerable.

“I believe that every driver that ever sat in a race car and lost their life has a part of the legacy of the safety of this sport,” says Kyle Petty, who lost his son Adam in a May 2000 crash at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Kyle is the grandson of Lee Petty, winner of the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959, and son of Richard, NASCAR’s biggest pre-Dale Earnhardt superstar.

“In the beginning you didn’t have to wear helmets, and then some guy got killed in 1951 and the next week guys were wearing helmets,” Petty says. “In 1964, Joe Weatherly hit his head because he used loose seat belts, and Fireball Roberts burned to death because we were using metal fuel cells. In 1970, my dad got flung out the window at Darlington and should have died. So guess what? We got better seat belts, rubber fuel cells and window nets.”

Petty moves his hand as if it were a tachometer, demonstrating the safety needle that moved whenever something bad happened to a big NASCAR star.

“When Adam died and Kenny [Irwin] died and [Tony] Roper died, all in 2000, the needle moved just a little,” he says. “But when Earnhardt died, that needle moved as far as it could go. People stopped reacting and got proactive.”

At Rockingham, NASCAR held a news conference in a tent erected to accommodate the hundreds of media members there to cover an event that normally attracted only a couple of dozen sportswriters. When NASCAR president Mike Helton tried to handle the group of international journalists like he would have the normal Rockingham crowd, it did not go over well, especially when he repeated a mantra he’d already preached at Daytona the day after Earnhardt’s death, with NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. at his side.

When asked for specifics about head and neck restraints, soft wall barriers and other potential safety mandates, Helton replied, “We simply are not going to react for the sake of reacting.”

“Being proactive is taking what you know, and cycling through what you know, to try to figure out what might happen and what you could do to prevent something from happening,” Helton, who moved on from the NASCAR presidency in 2015 but still serves on the board of directors, explains two decades later. “Reactive is, ‘OK, now I’ve seen something new that I didn’t know before, and let’s put that in a hopper and see if there’s something we can do with that new piece of information.’

“There was so much information all at once, it was a lot to process. We had to ask, what will doing this here mean to another part of the car over there, or to the drivers?”

Helton says that NASCAR’s greatest challenge was stepping out of the garage bubble and asking for help, a departure from its longtime wagons-circled way of doing business.

“We were already ramping up safety efforts from different things; you could look back at the history of roof flaps [added to cars in 1994 to keep them from going airborne at speedways] and different things that we reacted to in the past,” Helton says. “But I think the energy level of people wanting to talk about it was at an all-time high after [Earnhardt’s death on] Feb. 18, and not just in the garage area; it was global. It was worldwide. There were really highly talented companies and individuals globally that wanted to figure out how to close the gap on the safety element after the 18th.”

During a 2019 interview, Gary Nelson, who had started the 2001 season as Winston Cup Series director but was named head of the just-opened R&D Center by season’s end, recalled the shift in NASCAR’s safety mindset.

“Everything we did and said and decided was inside that garage,” Nelson said. “Dr. John Melvin, the racing safety expert, or Dr. Bob Hubbard would come to talk about safety or the HANS, and we respected them but didn’t understand them. I had a guy, an engineer, Steve Peterson, and I’d tell him to go handle them. But then, in 2001, we were going to them and saying, ‘OK, talk to us.'”


IF ONLY IT had happened that smoothly.

Instead, summer 2001 was NASCAR’s most miserable period. While race teams pressed on through grief, the sanctioning body trudged through a PR quagmire, even as post-Earnhardt television ratings rose. NASCAR fought with media outlets and other racing series, and even feuded with safety experts. France froze out Melvin after he publicly questioned NASCAR’s decision to display a frayed and broken seat belt found in the No. 3 car, which became the de facto smoking gun. He believed the belt had likely broken via the force of the collision with the wall, so Earnhardt’s fatal skull fracture had already happened.

NASCAR hired a Washington, D.C.-based PR firm, which immediately advised France that “being pissed off is not a plan.”

But lost amid all the finger-pointing and headlines were signs that the safety needle was indeed moving. NASCAR worked with IndyCar and the University of Nebraska to test the “soft wall” SAFER barrier, an aluminum and foam wall covering that sucks energy away from a race car upon impact. At the start of the 2001 All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May, Jeff Gordon hit the Turn 1 wall at the dreaded 1 o’clock angle but walked away.

“I stretched my neck so hard,” the eventual 2001 Cup champion said. “I have to thank God and the HANS device.”

On Aug. 21, 2001, NASCAR released the findings of its $1 million investigation into Earnhardt’s crash. “Official Accident Report No. 3 Car” was a two-volume, 300-page deluge of information. It used GPS tracing, computer simulations, real-life crash tests, photographs and countless other data points to dissect the fatal accident. That research became the foundation upon which today’s more detailed crash studies by NASCAR’s R&D Center are conducted.

The conclusion of the report was that Earnhardt had indeed died of a basilar skull fracture, though to many, the true cause of the injury seemed buried under all the data and a raging public battle with Bill Simpson, longtime safety guru and manufacturer of the seat belts in question.

As the years have gone by, that seat belt controversy has faded in the wake of the real issue, the possible preventability of Earnhardt’s death. According to Downing and Hubbard’s 2019 book, “Crash! From Senna to Earnhardt,” during the investigation Dr. James Raddin, one of the lead investigators, was asked by NASCAR officials whether a HANS device would have saved Earnhardt. He said simply “Yes” to a room full of stunned silence. The tool that could have saved him wasn’t some new invention that needed to be discovered. It had been there all along.

That fall, Melvin was called in to talk to France. The NASCAR chairman asked him the same question about whether the HANS device would have saved Earnhardt. Melvin answered, “Yes, sir.”

In an interview shortly before his death in 2014, Melvin recalled that meeting: “I figured that I would be shown the door. Instead, they said, ‘OK, so where do we go from here?’ and they hired me on the spot.” Melvin worked with Nelson and Peterson to get the NASCAR R&D Center on line by the end of 2001, initially working out of an old race shop. The current 60,000-square-foot building opened its doors in 2003.

“I think there has always been a misunderstanding about R&D, that it was invented because of Dale’s death,” O’Donnell explains. “The plans for this facility were already in place. What changed was the focus. In the beginning, it had more of a competition-based mission, and that’s still a huge part of what is done here. Safety was always a part of the plan, but after Dale’s death, the focus leaned much more into a safety mission.”

Even still, NASCAR didn’t mandate head and neck restraints until October 2001, after driver Blaise Alexander was killed in an ARCA stock car event at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Oct. 1. He died of a basilar skull fracture after contact with Kerry Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt’s oldest child.

Alexander was the last driver to die in a major stock car event.

“Blaise was one of my best friends,” says Jimmie Johnson, who made his Cup Series debut at Charlotte Motor Speedway that same week. “If today’s safety regulations and standards were in place, Blaise Alexander would still be here as well. So to me, it’s personal. I have counted on these restraint systems and soft walls and all the things that came from their untimely deaths to keep my life safe, but I sadly lost one of my closest friends, and we lost Dale.”


AFTER FIVE DECADES of slow-moving, reactionary safety efforts, NASCAR now doles out safety-based changes and mandates at a relatively superspeedway-like pace.

Over its first two decades, the R&D Center has overseen the installation and evolution of SAFER barriers (though full-wall coverage has still moved at a sometimes frustratingly deliberate crawl). The center also has spearheaded the implementation of six-, seven- and now nine-point seat belt restraint systems, as well as mandatory full-face helmets, All Belts to Seats (ABTS) mounting and in-depth seat research. There also have been numerous steel bars added throughout the cockpit cage area, as well as energy-absorbing foam and the high-speed video cameras, introduced in 2018. A second generation of “blue box” incident data recorders continues to create a vast library of information, detecting early patterns before they become deadly trends.

In 2007, the R&D Center also birthed NASCAR’s Generation 5 car, aka the “Car of Tomorrow.” Drivers and fans hated the boxy aesthetics of it, but safety-wise it was revolutionary, creating a larger “greenhouse” cockpit area and moving drivers closer to the center of the car, away from dangerous window openings and walls.

Most days, Dr. John Patalak, NASCAR’s senior director of safety engineering, can be found with his staff in the R&D Center at the controls of superpowered hydraulic pulls and presses, stretching the limits of nylon window nets and conducting maddeningly slow compression tests of piping and foam, to see how they will react to the in-race pressures that are produced in fractions of seconds.

On one giant HD monitor is super-slow-motion footage of a soda can fired from a cannon to see how a laminate windshield holds up versus 190 mph projectiles. On another monitor is a computer simulation of a 1 o’clock-angle collision with a newly designed front bumper. And on yet another TV is footage of a high-speed camera from last fall’s Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval event, pointed at a Cup Series driver as his car bounces off a backstretch barrier. A flashing orange dot indicates the racer experienced an ultra-quick but not insignificant G-load. To most, it is completely unnoticeable. But to the cameras and Patalak’s trained eye, the blip was a solid test of the driver’s HANS, seat and headrests. All did their jobs.

Patalak, hired by Peterson before his death in 2008, holds three degrees in both mechanical and biomedical engineering. He came into this job knowing what race cars do when they crash. Now he understands what the human body does too.

“This goes back to how Dale Sr.’s death impacted the industry, an ongoing effort that never stops, hoping to know what we don’t know as soon as possible,” Patalak says with his hand resting on a chunk of black foam, just one block in a lineup waiting to endure hydraulic press torture. “The low-hanging fruit is gone in stock car safety, but you still have to look for those 5 and 10% improvements on all the systems, and that’s still happening. That never stops.”

Not even when Patalak is trying to squeeze in some Sunday family time. If his phone starts buzzing during a race, he knows there’s been a crash that needs his attention. The photographs start flowing in from NASCAR officials at the racetrack, along with their on-the-spot instant analysis of what happened.

When Newman’s car arrived (along with his slightly splintered HANS and his extremely cracked helmet), issues that were discovered were separated into short- and long-term projects. With the next superspeedway race scheduled for Talladega Speedway in less than two months, the R&D team looked for any quick-fix issues that might have needed to be installed by race teams as they were building their cars for Daytona’s sister racetrack. The longer-term projects were steered into the Next Gen folder, as in the next-generation model of NASCAR stock car that was already being designed for 2021 (now 2022 due to the pandemic).

On May 1, while NASCAR was still two weeks away from emerging from quarantine, a list of competition adjustments was issued, based on the Newman findings. It included the addition of a check valve to the oil reservoir tank, which was the source of the fire that was spreading in Newman’s car as he and it hung upside down. It also included the new steel roll bars and intrusion plating (a shield to block objects from breaching the cockpit) added to the left rear side of the cage behind the driver’s seat, the very area where Corey LaJoie’s car smashed into Newman’s Mustang on the Daytona frontstretch.

“Yeah, I have two bars named after me now, Newman Bars 1 and 2; that’s good company with the guys who have the other bars in there with me, and they don’t have two!” Newman says with a proud chuckle.

It has become customary to name a new roll cage addition after the driver whose wreck warranted its invention. Richard Petty’s legendary barrel roll down the Daytona frontstretch in 1988 brought about the Petty Bar, and the Earnhardt Bar appeared after Dale Sr.’s 1996 Talladega crash that fractured his shoulder and sternum. The first Newman Bar was added in 2013, along the roofline, after an airborne Carl Edwards landed on Newman’s roof in 2009 … and later that same season Newman got airborne himself and landed on Kevin Harvick’s roof … and then airborne Kurt Busch landed on top of him in 2013, all at Talladega.

“But when I really watch my crash, you see fingerprints of those other guys in there,” Newman says. “I look at my crash and how it started, and the turn into the right and the nose in under the wall, and I’m guessing if you laid the paths out, technology-wise, it’d be fairly similar to Dale’s crash.”

And if he’d had that crash today, but in Earnhardt’s car hitting Daytona’s wall of Feb. 18, 2001?

“I would not be an alive racing driver today sitting here,” he says.

The sons of those other racers with roll bars named for them, Kyle Petty and Dale Earnhardt Jr., catch themselves watching Newman’s crash and still can’t believe it. But their thankfulness also comes with a warning.

“We’ve made more progress in 18 or 19 years than they made in the first 50 years of the sport, so you have to be proud of that, but at the same time I was fascinated by the reaction to Ryan’s accident,” Petty says. “It’s like the whole world has forgotten how dangerous motor racing is, and you should never forget that, never, ever, ever.

“So are we standing on the edge of complacency again? Is there something right around the corner that we don’t see that will sneak up on us again? Those are the questions that I ask at 3 o’clock in the morning when I wake up in a cold sweat, thinking about Adam and thinking about Dale.”

Adds Earnhardt Jr.: “You still gotta look at what you have today and go, ‘I’m not OK. I am not satisfied with this. This isn’t the finish line of safety. We can make this even better.’ We’re going to look at this one day and go, ‘Dang, can you believe they drove those cars? Look how unsafe that is!’ We’ll find more and more flaws with what we have today, just like we did in the past.”

Some of that past is way back in, well, the past, as in 20 years ago on Feb. 18. But some of it is not so long ago, as in one year ago on Feb. 17. The chances of someone dying again behind the wheel of a NASCAR race car are almost certain. Motorsports can always be safer, but they will never be safe.

The difference between that day, whenever it comes, and the tragedies of two decades ago is that the NASCAR garage is no longer so desensitized to death that it will take killing a Hall of Famer to make it hurt enough to instigate change. That change is taking place all the time.

Every NASCAR racer dreams of carrying a little bit of Dale Earnhardt with them into the cockpit. Thing is, they already do. He’s in every roll bar, seat belt, HANS device and wall that surrounds them.

“When I think about Dad, when I think about his legacy, I never think about, man, he would be proud of the safety that he drove into the sport,” Earnhardt Jr. says. “I’m thankful for it. I’m thankful for our sport being safer. I know a lot of drivers — Ryan Newman, me — we can thank Dale Earnhardt that we are alive here today.

“But I just think about him here, as if he was standing and breathing here next to us, you know what I mean? It sucks that he can’t be here to meet my family, to know where everybody is. If you want to believe that he knows that, then that’s fine. I imagine that he knows. But I want to see him and hear what his opinions are about our family. We’ll chew on that for a long while and then go into NASCAR.

“‘Dad, what do you think about all that? What should we be doing different? What should we focus on to try and improve these things we’ve got going on?’ That’s what I want. For him to be here. That’s what we all want.”

Revisit this four-part series on the life, death and legacy of Dale Earnhardt. Read Part I on Earnhardt’s lasting legacy, Part II on the safety culture before Earnhardt’s crash, and Part III on the day of the Earnhardt crash.

 

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