Seat-belt failure did not cause the head injuries that killed NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt during February's Daytona 500, a court-appointed medical expert who studied the racer's autopsy photos reported yesterday.
Dr. Barry Myers, a Duke University expert in crash injuries, said the popular stock-car driver died when his head whipped violently forward in the moments after his Chevrolet stuck a concrete wall at 150 mph.
Rejecting NASCAR's theory of the crash, Myers said that, even assuming what he termed "a worst-case scenario," Earnhardt's head probably would have suffered the same damage even if his lap belt had not torn on impact.
"As such," Myers wrote, "the restraint failure does not appear to have played a role in Mr. Earnhardt's fatal injury." Myers' five-page report was the culmination of an agreement reached last month between the Orlando Sentinel and Teresa Earnhardt, the racer's widow.
He was asked to evaluate whether Earnhardt's basilar skull fracture resulted from his head whipping forward, a blow on the top of the head or - as NASCAR had suggested - a broken seat belt that allowed the driver to strike his head on the steering wheel.
In his findings, Myers sided with other medical experts who told the Sentinel Earnhardt likely died because his head and neck were not held securely in place.
Although Earnhardt's chin struck the steering wheel hard enough to bend it, Myers said he believed that the racer succumbed to the sudden, wrenching forces that can kill anyone whose head is not restrained in a high-speed frontal crash.
Myers stopped short of saying that better head-and-neck protection would have saved Earnhardt. But he said such a device had the potential to prevent these injuries, which have claimed the lives of as many as five NASCAR drivers in the past 11 months.
Myers' report, which proposed further study of head protection for NASCAR drivers, came only hours after the racing organization announced it had commissioned its own experts to reconstruct Earnhardt's accident."Everyone involved in this process is committed to a sense of urgency, but we must also move forward in a thorough, careful and complete manner," NASCAR president Mike Helton's statement said. Its release broke six weeks of silence by NASCAR, which had refused to respond to any questions about its crash investigation.
Helton did not identify who is doing the investigation, beyond references to companies and investigators from various engineering disciplines. And NASCAR had no comment on Myers' report.
Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion, crashed on the final turn of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18 and could not be revived. In a news conference five days later, NASCAR officials announced that a seat belt had broken in Earnhardt's car.
Daytona International Speedway's Dr. Steve Bohannon, who worked on Earnhardt after the crash, said he thought the faulty belt allowed Earnhardt's head to strike the steering wheel of his Chevrolet. He speculated that the force of the blow cracked the base of Earnhardt's skull and caused massive head injuries.
The Sentinel went to court to gain access to Earnhardt's autopsy photos after his wife persuaded a Volusia County, Fla., judge to seal them. The newspaper, which vowed not to print the photos, sought permission for a medical expert to evaluate the pictures to see if better equipment might have saved the racer's life and to evaluate NASCAR's seat-belt theory.
Although the court challenge outraged NASCAR fans and prompted state lawmakers to remove autopsy photos from the list of Florida's public records, it produced a settlement allowing Myers, an independent medical expert, to see the photos. His selection was agreed to by both sides.