|Tuesday, April 10
Doctor's conclusion makes simple sense
By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com
Let us pause here to give credit to a man you have never heard of for his succinct summation of the tragic death of a man you have.
The unknown is Dr. Barry Myers, an expert in crash-related injuries, who works at Duke University. The other is Dale Earnhardt. And without wasting a further minute of the sports world's inestimably valuable time, let us get right to the question of what it was that Myers believes killed Earnhardt that February day at the Daytona 500:
A car slamming into a wall head-first at 150-plus mph.
That's it. End of story. Myers could go on, but there's no point, really.
Alas, that won't stop anybody else from trying.
You already know that NASCAR will go on with the Earnhardt case. Shoot, maybe the thing is bound for a debate-life that rivals Earnhardt's incredible driving career for sheer longevity. Now the NASCAR folks have commissioned an accident reconstruction review in an effort to learn more about what happened in the fractions of seconds in which the man in the No. 3 Chevy lost his life. They don't expect results until at least August, which means another four months of no-chance-at-the-truth speculation.
There's the seat-belt angle; you've heard that one. Myers, who was brought into the story as the result of a compromise between Earnhardt's family (which wants the matter closed and the autopsy photos forever sealed) and the Orlando Sentinel newspaper (which, well, doesn't), essentially dismissed the notion that a broken seat belt could be responsible for the injuries that killed Earnhardt.
Common sense tells you that there are legal issues hidden in here somewhere, keeping this investigation chugging on. If the seat belt were deemed to be the reason that Earnhardt suffered his massive head injuries, then somebody's liable for that. If the seat belt manufacturer could prove that, say, Earnhardt wore the thing wrong or incompletely, well, then, there's another legal implication.
And so on, and so on. But go back to what Dr. Barry Myers came up with after reading the reports and studying the autopsy photos. It is a conclusion so startingly simple that it probably has no chance of actually being accepted.
Dale Earnhardt died because he was driving a car 150 mph and he hit a wall. He didn't hit it at an angle, the kind that so often results in an exploding race car but, miraculously, no fatalities. He didn't sideswipe it or spin into it.
He hit the wall at 150 mph, and he hit it head-on. It was, as several NASCAR drivers noted in tragedy's wake, the kind of impact that makes every race-knowledgable person cringe, because Earnhardt went straight in.
You know what? There is no mystery here. What Myers concluded was that it didn't really matter whether or not Dale Earnhardt's seat belt tore, because the force of his car's impact into the wall was so tremendous that he likely would have suffered the same damage had the belt held its place.
"As such," Myers wrote, "the restraint failure does not appear to have played a role in Mr. Earnhardt's fatal injury."
It took Dr. Barry Myers just four pages to deliver his report. In a world in which most expert opinions need four pages just to clear the preamble, that is the very definition of a firm conclusion.
There are valid issues everywhere, of course. NASCAR, its drivers, its fans, its sponsors -- everybody's got an angle worth pursuing. The efficacy of the drivers' restraint systems matters. The modifications to tracks -- and to the race-cars themselves -- in the name of a more exciting product certainly merit close and continued scrutiny. There are financial issues, corporate issues, safety issues, marketability issues.
The only thing there isn't, just now, is a Dale Earnhardt issue. You don't have to be Barry Myers to understand it. The man died because his car went into the wall in the worst way that it possibly could have gone in. It's tragic. It's also over.
Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee, which has a Web site at http://www.sacbee.com/.