Expert says belt no factor in Earnhardt's death

of the Sentinel Staff

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 Monday.

Dr. Barry Myers, a Duke University expert on crash injuries, said America's most popular stock-car driver died when his head whipped violently forward in the moments after his No. 3 Chevrolet struck a concrete wall.

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' four-page report was the culmination of an agreement reached last month between the Orlando Sentinel and Teresa Earnhardt, the racer's widow. Myers 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 chin on the steering wheel.

Sudden, wrenching forces

In his findings, Myers sided with other racing and medical experts who told the Orlando Sentinel that 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 thought the racer succumbed to the sudden, wrenching forces that can kill anyone whose head is not restrained in a high-speed frontal crash.

Dr. Philip Villanueva, a University of Miami neurosurgeon originally hired by the Sentinel to study the Earnhardt case, said he had reached the same conclusion as Myers from the autopsy report. But he wanted to examine the autopsy photos to be certain.

"My conclusion was that the patient definitely died of a whip injury and that the breaking seat belt did not significantly contribute to the patient's death," Villanueva said.

Dr. Steve Olvey, medical director of Championship Auto Racing Teams for 22 years, said he also agreed with Myers' findings after reviewing the report.

"I think it's very similar to what's happened to other drivers in those type of cars," said Olvey, also a University of Miami doctor. "And impact with the steering wheel, if any, was a minor contributing factor."

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.

NASCAR breaks silence

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 said in a statement. The announcement broke six weeks of silence in which NASCAR had refused to respond to questions about its investigation of the crash.

Helton did not identify who is doing the investigation, beyond references to experts in various engineering disciplines. NASCAR had no comment on Myers' report, which was released later Monday afternoon.

Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion, crashed on the final turn of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18 and could not be revived. The Volusia County Medical Examiner's Office ruled that he died of a fracture at the base of his skull and resulting internal injuries. Then at a news conference five days after the race, NASCAR officials announced that a seat belt had broken in Earnhardt's car.

Daytona International Speedway physician Dr. Steve Bohannon, who worked on Earnhardt after the crash, said he thought the faulty belt allowed Earnhardt's chin 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.

Legal battle over photos

By then, Earnhardt's wife had persuaded a Volusia County judge to seal her husband's autopsy photos. The Sentinel challenged the order in court, asking the judge to let a medical expert evaluate the pictures. The newspaper had no intention to publish the photos -- only to learn whether better safety equipment might have saved the racer's life and to evaluate NASCAR's seat-belt theory.

The court challenge outraged NASCAR fans and prompted state lawmakers to introduce a bill limiting public access to autopsy photos. The judge ordered both sides into mediation, which ended with an agreement to let an independent medical expert see the photos. The selection of Myers, a medical doctor and biomedical engineer, was agreed to by both sides.

He reviewed the photos for about 30 minutes at the Medical Examiner's Office on March 26. In his report, he wrote that Earnhardt's injuries reflected a very severe high-speed crash that resulted when he lost control of his race car, swerved first to his left and then to his right, and then slid up the track into the concrete wall.

"Frontal crashes which are angled to the right side of the vehicle are especially dangerous for the head and neck of the driver," Myers wrote.

The collision threw Earnhardt's body in the same direction as the impact, hurling his head and neck toward the concrete wall. His head whipped forward and downward in a circular arc while the seat belt held his body in place against the seat.

"This is the basis of the whip mechanism which occurs in right-side angled frontal collision," Myers wrote. "In crashes like Mr. Earnhardt's, these inertial forces alone can be large enough to produce ring fractures of the skull base."

When the skull cracks this way, it shears major blood vessels and damages the brain stem, which controls such basic bodily functions as breathing. Death can come instantly.

Causes of death narrowed

Examination of Earnhardt's fracture helped Myers rule out several theories on how the driver died.

For example, he determined that Earnhardt had not cracked his skull by striking the top of his helmet against the roll cage of his car. If that had happened, Myers wrote, the edges of the fracture would have been compressed downward. And Earnhardt would have suffered obvious neck injuries, which he did not.

He also dismissed the idea that Earnhardt died as his head whipped backward against the seat or roll cage. Myers pointed out that the ring fracture did not cause bruising at the back of the head and that the break was larger in the front than the rear, neither of which is consistent with a strike at the back of the head.

What killed Earnhardt, Myers concluded, was the weight of his unrestrained head whipping forward beyond the ability of his neck muscles to keep it from snapping away the base of the skull.

The underside of Earnhardt's chin struck and bent the steering wheel, a blow that could have been enough to cause a fatal skull injury. But the head whipping by itself would have killed Earnhardt, Myers said.

The report also states that a helmet with a full-face mask would not have saved Earnhardt. This finding ran contrary to speculation among NASCAR fans that Earnhardt's open-face helmet allowed his face and jaw to smash into the steering wheel.

But Myers, who has worked extensively to design better safety helmets, noted that full-face-shield helmets do help prevent some facial injuries.

Belt wasn't faulty

The analysis appeared to exonerate Simpson Performance Products, the maker of Earnhardt's seat belt. NASCAR has said that the lap belt on Earnhardt's left side failed, though no one outside the racing organization has acknowledged seeing the belt after the crash.

While NASCAR officials publicly speculated that the seat belt contributed to or caused Earnhardt's death, Myers ruled that out as a significant factor.

Earnhardt suffered eight broken ribs, a broken breastbone and abrasions over the left hip and left lower abdomen. These showed that the seat belt functioned properly through much of the crash, holding back Earnhardt's body, Myers concluded.

"If the outboard lap belt had remained intact throughout the crash, Mr. Earnhardt's head would still likely have experienced similar inertial forces and similar contact with the steering wheel," he wrote.

Bohannon, who floated the seat-belt theory as NASCAR's medical expert on the crash, could not be reached for comment Monday. A spokeswoman at Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach, where Bohannon works in the emergency room, said he had decided to say nothing more about the crash.

Seat-belt maker Bill Simpson called the report "the best news I've heard in seven weeks. I've been living in daily hell," he said, his voice choking with emotion.

Photos 'unnecessary'

Teresa Earnhardt's lawyer, Thom Rumberger, said the report helped provide more answers in the death. But he maintained the report does not state that viewing the autopsy photos was crucial to Myers' independent investigation.

"The autopsy photos were completely unnecessary for this report," Rumberger said. "That's what the fight was about. It certainly does minimize the need for these photographs in the future."

Rumberger also blasted the Sentinel for filing a lawsuit challenging the new law restricting access to autopsy photos. The newspaper filed suit against the legislation on March 30, one day after it was signed into law by Gov. Jeb Bush.

Sentinel attorney David Bralow denied that the newspaper reneged on a deal with the Earnhardt family. He said the lawsuit questions the constitutionality of the law and has nothing to do with the Earnhardt case.

Wayne State University crash expert John Melvin had been predicting almost since the accident that the cause of the injury would be a head whip. He said Earnhardt's case shows the need for head-and-neck restraints in NASCAR.

"If he'd had some method of controlling head motion, it would have reduced the risk," Melvin said.

Helton said in a statement Monday that the racing organization is conducting a wide-ranging investigation of safety issues related to Earnhardt's crash. NASCAR officials had said previously that they had never seen a broken seat belt in a car.

"When we encounter situations that are new or unique, it is both appropriate and necessary to obtain additional perspectives," Helton said. "This review is a result of just that -- given the circumstances surrounding the occupant-restraint system in Dale Earnhardt's tragic accident."

NASCAR said the review panel will continue its work and is made up of experts in various disciplines -- but identified none of them.

"Safety has always been the top priority for NASCAR and all participants in NASCAR-sanctioned racing," Helton said, "and while we have confidence in the sport's historic investigative process and ongoing safety initiatives, it is important that we continue to develop new and better techniques, resources and information for the sport's safety effort."

Jim Leusner can be reached at or at 407-420-5411. Henry Pierson Curtis can be reached at or at 407-420-5411.

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