Dale Earnhardt's death at the Daytona 500: The NASCAR safety culture before the crash

This is Part II 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.

DAYTONA SPEEDWEEKS 2001 opened with Kyle Petty trapping Dale Earnhardt, who had been ducking his fellow driver for nearly nine months, to have a long-overdue conversation during the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona sports car endurance race.

Around 2:30 a.m. on Feb. 4, Petty had just finished a driving shift and was walking toward the infield motorcoach lot to grab some sleep before his next stint behind the wheel. That's when he spotted Earnhardt, who was on the same driving and sleep schedule.

"I ran up to him and just gave him nowhere to go," Petty recalls now. "Before he could say anything or avoid me, I jumped right in, 'How's it going, man? How you like driving these things?'"

Throughout the 2000 season, Petty had watched Earnhardt do everything to dodge him, from about-face turns exiting drivers' meetings to hiding behind a stack of tires in the garage, all to keep from having one very tough conversation.

Earnhardt, the toughest man in motorsports, had been avoiding Petty since the death of Petty's 19-year-old son, Adam, at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in May 2000. As kindhearted as Earnhardt could be, when it came to reaching out to his racing colleagues in times of tragedy, he was notorious for not handling hospital visits well, let alone funerals.

The entire year had been full of disconcerting talks for everyone in the garage, the result of three deaths across NASCAR's top three national series over a span of only five months. But there hadn't been an overwhelming demand for change. Not yet, at least not in the stock car racing community. No, it was all just sad and uncomfortable, even for two old friends.

Kyle Petty and Earnhardt had grown up together, the sons of a pair of multigenerational wheelmen begat from royal stock car racing bloodlines who had many discussions about putting their own sons behind the wheel. Earnhardt was nine years older, and his father, Ralph, was a short-track legend who had died early of a heart attack, so Dale had grown up fending for himself on the Carolinas racing ladder. Meanwhile, Petty's father, Richard, was the biggest name in NASCAR history. Kyle's arrival to the Cup Series in 1979, the same season Earnhardt won Rookie of the Year, was the precursor to Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s much-hyped Winston Cup debut 20 years later. In 1999, Kyle's son had made his equally ballyhooed debut as a full-time Busch Series driver.

Adam Petty made his one and only Cup Series start at Texas Motor Speedway on April 2, 2000, the same event in which Earnhardt Jr. earned his first Cup race victory. Earnhardt Sr. finished eighth, while Kyle Petty, who had failed to qualify for the event, still made it onto the track as a replacement driver for the injured Elliott Sadler. It was the only time all four men would appear in the same race. Six weekends later, Adam Petty died when his Busch Series car plowed into the Turn 3 wall at a dangerous right-front corner "1 o'clock" angle.

"For him, it just hit too close to home with Dale Jr.," Petty says. "He couldn't wrap his head around Adam being gone because Adam and Junior had run together at Myrtle Beach Speedway, and they had raced together and done stuff together, and he just didn't know what to say.

"[Dale] never skipped a beat," Petty says, smiling as he recalls the moment when he finally cornered Earnhardt in that RV Lot in Daytona. "He said, 'I am so sorry. I just don't know what to say to you.' And I said, 'Well, let's just talk about it. Let's just talk, man.' So, we went over to his bus and we sat there outside for probably an hour and a half."

Petty told Earnhardt he understood, but also asked him to stop avoiding him. They laughed. They cried. They promised to keep the conversation going.

"There was a lot of truth to face, and that kind of truth is tough, especially for race car drivers," Petty says. "We had all been forced to face a lot of truth during that time, a lot of really difficult truth about what we did for a living, and Dale Earnhardt was certainly no different than any of the rest of us."

The truth at the time was race car drivers, especially stock car racers, were dying at a historic rate -- the worst season in 36 years.

LESS THAN TWO months after Petty's death, Kenny Irwin Jr. died on July 7 in almost the exact same spot and in the exact same type of crash that killed Petty, when his Cup Series car hit the NHMS Turn 3 wall with such right-front force that it flipped his Chevy onto its roof. The third fatality occurred on a Friday night, Oct. 13, 2000, when Truck Series racer Tony Roper was turned into the concrete barrier along the front stretch at Texas Motor Speedway, also at the dreaded 1 o'clock angle.

The next morning at Talladega Superspeedway, Cup Series crews had their cars lined up for tech inspection before that day's "Happy Hour" final practice for Sunday's Winston 500, the 18th-to-first dash that would be Earnhardt's 76th and final win.

Those in the garage watched the Truck Series race the night before, saw Roper's crash, and most had gone to bed before he was officially declared dead at the hospital. As word made its way through the Talladega infield, it was met with little more than shakes of the head ... then the teams kept pushing their cars through the tech line.

"So, it's wrong, but drivers aren't seeing what's happening with other drivers losing their lives and going, 'Oh my gosh! We gotta do something! I'm scared to race!' or 'I'm nervous for that, to get back in a car after seeing what happened to those guys,'" Earnhardt Jr. says of the mentality of the garage, even amid a season as horrific as 2000.

Drivers raced with broken legs and backs, and with swollen eyelids taped open, causing Earnhardt Jr. to once describe the old NASCAR safety culture as living by the "put a washcloth on it" mantra. When Earnhardt Jr. suffered the first of his multiple concussions at Daytona in 1998, his remedy was precisely that -- he laid on the couch watching his father win the Daytona 500 on TV while he held a cold washcloth on his aching head.

"A driver gets killed. It happens, and you reason with it," Earnhardt Jr. says. "You go, 'Man, that's a fluke deal. I wonder what it was that caused that? Because it can't just be as simple as the common-sense story that I'm hearing.' Right? It's gotta be something weird. You start to dissect the reasons why it happened to justify it, so that you feel more comfortable getting into the car that next race, the next week. And you come up with all the myriad of reasons why it shouldn't have happened and probably why it won't happen to you."

In 2000, the list of those reasons was long. Drivers publicly figured that, well, Adam Petty was too young and inexperienced. Irwin was always a bit reckless. Roper was in over his head. Petty and Irwin's throttles got hung up, and they had no way of killing the engine. Roper should have never tried to thread the needle in the frontstretch dogleg at Texas, otherwise his truck wouldn't have gotten turned into the wall like it did, right?

Privately, questions were being asked about the increasing stiffness of the chassis. Were the same rigid race car skeletons that led to higher speeds and better handling also proving to be too fast for their own good and too unforgiving when they hit the wall?

This conversation about slowing cars down is what got Earnhardt Sr. so riled up and led to his legendary quote: "Put a kerosene rag around your ankles so the ants won't climb up and eat that candy ass."

Despite saying that, he often recognized the need for safety improvements in the sport. He went against the garage grain with his support of so-called "soft wall" concepts that were being designed and tested by engineers around the world, mainly by bolting the soft wall onto existing unforgiving concrete barriers to absorb energy away from the car and driver during a crash.

Earnhardt had become a believer in the concept during an IROC all-star event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1998, when he had a front-row seat for Arie Luyendyk's violent contact with the inside retaining wall of Turn 4. The two-time Indy 500 champion happened to hit a section that was covered with an experimental Polyethylene Energy Dissipating System (PEDS) barrier. The scale-like wall covering exploded into sections and flew all over the racetrack, absorbing violent energy away from Luyendyk, who unimaginably walked away from a car that had been twisted beyond recognition.

Later that fall, Earnhardt asked to see video of foam, block-based barriers being utilized at the Oswego (New York) Speedway short track. Similar Styrofoam blocks had padded the steel barrier lining Turn 1 at Watkins Glen that summer and likely saved the life of a young Busch Series driver who had lost his brakes and drove into that fence at more than 100 mph. Incredibly, he climbed out and stood on the roof of his Chevy, arms raised in disbelief. His name was Jimmie Johnson.

When asked about the most-vocalized concern about foam and PEDS soft walls -- that they took too long to clean up after a crash -- Earnhardt said, "I'd rather wait 15 or 20 minutes for them to clean up that mess than for them to clean me off the wall."

He even begrudgingly gave in to a customized aluminum bucket racing seat, replacing the beloved old school cradles he had built himself for years, seats that looked like little more than a school bus bench. He was always reluctant to become too restrained in the cockpit, preferring to do what he called "riding down a crash," believing it was better to move with the violence. He feared if he was strapped in too tightly a hard impact would lead to knotted and pulled apart muscles.

Earnhardt, deep down, was still an old-school short-track racer, but he was also always willing to discuss new ideas. At least for a little while.

"The safety conversation with Dale was pretty constant," says Gary Nelson, a top-shelf crew chief known for his engineering creativity and ability to bend the NASCAR rulebook, who had also served as the director of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series during the boom days of the 1990s. "Dale was always thinking big picture, not just for himself or his team, but the entire sport, and that included safety. If you were in the NASCAR office hauler at the racetrack at any point during that decade, then there's a pretty good chance that at some point Dale would come barging in there with something on his mind for me, for [NASCAR chairman] Bill [France] Junior, or Mike Helton, who was NASCAR president by then."

Of those we-need-to-talk meetings with Earnhardt, Helton says, "That's part of his character, just to go straight to the source that could either say yes or no, and that built the relationship he had with Bill Jr., and through that, me.

"He'd cut through all of the muck and say, 'Look, what is this?' or 'You got to do this!' or 'What the heck are y'all doing?' or most of the time it was, 'Let me help you out here or there,'" he continues. "That came as a voice from the garage, on behalf of the garage, with the charisma and moxie to go do it. That made him the talking head for the garage area, when NASCAR needed to be talked to."

LIKE MANY IN NASCAR, Earnhardt was skeptical of one safety proposal -- the Head and Neck Support Device, or HANS.

One of those Earnhardt NASCAR trailer entrances took place during a two-day General Motors test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in mid-July 2000, the week following Irwin's death in New Hampshire. The Intimidator blew into the office at the front of the sanctioning body's 18-wheeler and plopped down on one of the leather couches. Helton was in that office having a meeting with Jim Downing, an old friend from Helton's days as general manager of Atlanta Motor Speedway.

"They had a little desk in there, and [Earnhardt] threw his leg over the corner of it and kind of sat down," Downing recalls in his seminal 2019 book "Crash! From Senna to Earnhardt." "He looked at us with that bristly mustache and that grin as if to say, 'What are you guys talking about?'"

He knew exactly what the topic of conversation was. Downing was the co-inventor of the HANS. General Motors and Ford were privately pushing their drivers to wear the HANS, offering them up for free and even promising a small cash bonus for doing it. But there were almost no takers. So, according to Downing, Earnhardt's question was also a message.

"He didn't want to have anything to do with the HANS and didn't want Mike listening to what I had to say," Downing writes. "Earnhardt sitting there pretty much brought the discussion with Mike to an end."

Downing's invention was slow to grow in racing circles, especially considering the idea that eventually became the HANS Device was initially drawn up in 1981 after tragedy spurred his research.

Downing had experienced a frightening crash in a sports car event in Canada in 1980, and then was deeply troubled by the death of a colleague, French racer Patrick Jacquemart, who was killed after head-on contact with a concrete barrier on the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in July 1981.

Downing, who built race cars out of his Atlanta shop, couldn't understand how Jacquemart, an engineer by trade and thus always meticulous about how he was strapped into his cars, suffered fatal head injuries. He took his question to his brother-in-law, Robert Hubbard, a professor of biochemical engineering at Michigan State and a veteran of General Motors' auto safety engineering program.

Hubbard found that Jacquemart had been killed by a basilar skull fracture, then a largely unknown and misunderstood injury in the motorsports world. It was always thrown into the larger cause-of-death descriptive bucket labeled "head trauma." But the details of the injury are much more gruesome, and the frequency of the basilar skull fractures was much greater than anyone realized.

"We didn't understand at the time that the injury was as common as it was because no one was keeping track," Hubbard explained in 2018. "The mentality of racers was that, hey, it's just meant to be and there's nothing that can be done about it. But Jim and I did not feel that way."

The human skull is made up of multiple bones that are fused together as we grow older. At the base of the skull are five bones that connect around the vertebrae that make up the neck, the beginning of the spinal cord. It is a crucial intersection of our body's superhighway, where nerves and blood vessels connect the brain to the rest of the body. Any damage to those five bones is a basilar skull fracture and threatens to compromise those pathways of blood and communication.

When a race car hits a wall and that car decelerates rapidly, the driver's body wants to keep traveling at the original rate of speed. That's why racers are strapped into their rigidly mounted seats so tightly, using multipoint harnesses and belts, because they want to stop moving along with the car.

The problem occurs when their restrained body stops moving, but their unrestrained head does not. A 10- to-12-pound helmeted head pulling away from the body at speeds of more than 100 mph is left to rely on nothing more than muscles and tendons to hold it back. When those soft tissues do not, the head will literally pull itself off the neck, breaking the bones at its base -- the basilar skull fracture -- and pulling apart those fragile blood vessels and nerves. The blood flow is cut off, the brain can no longer communicate with the body, and death is instantaneous.

That's what killed Jacquemart in 1981. That's what killed Adam Petty, Irwin and Roper in 2000. It's also what killed NASCAR drivers Grant Adcox at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1989, J.D. McDuffie at Watkins Glen in 1991, Clifford Allison at Michigan in '92, Formula One racers Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna at Imola in 1994, Indy 500 pole winner Scott Brayton in 1996, NASCAR Truck Series racer John Nemechek at Homestead-Miami in 1997 and CART drivers Gonzalo Rodriguez and Greg Moore at Laguna Seca and Auto Club Speedway in 1999.

During one three-day period in '94, NASCAR drivers Rodney Orr and Neil Bonnett were killed in nearly identical crashes while practicing for the Daytona 500. Both had veered into the wall at right-front angles. Bonnett was Earnhardt's best friend. He had been forced into retirement four years earlier when he suffered head injuries stemming from a partial basilar skull fracture at Darlington Raceway, but was coaxed back into the cockpit by Earnhardt.

"We had all been forced to face a lot of truth during that time, a lot of really difficult truth about what we did for a living." Kyle Petty on a string of fatalities in NASCAR

Later that same year, Earnhardt rival Ernie Irvan suffered a partial basilar skull fracture in a vicious practice crash at Michigan Speedway. It affected his motor skills and his eyesight and slurred his speech, but later that year he was able to race again. Why wasn't he killed from his injuries? He was saved the same way Bonnett had been in 1990. His head's forward motion was stopped when it hit the steering wheel. That's why the right front corner 1 o'clock angle impacts are so feared. The unrestrained head always moves in the direction of initial impact. So, when that head is thrown into the deep, empty spaces of the right front side of the cockpit, there's nothing to slow it down. Every other direction provides some sort of obstacle to potentially stop it, whether it be the steering wheel, window net or headrest.

The steering wheel limited Irvan's injuries to merely awful instead of fatal.

Hubbard and Downing's concept was simple. Create a device that would restrain the head at the same speed as the body during a crash. A black frame resembling a neck brace was placed atop the driver's shoulders, strapped with that driver beneath their belts, and then attached to the helmet via straps of its own at multiple points on each side of the headwear. The same belts used to keep the body restrained would add the head to their workload.

An initial idea sketched on some loose-leaf paper in East Lansing had become a cardboard prototype and then black metal and carbon. Downing wore the first model in a sports car event in 1986, coincidentally at Daytona International Speedway. Over the next decade and a half, the initial bulky "Darth Vader" model was slimmed down, and by 1991, the first models were on sale to the public.

Problem was, no one was buying them. Not at first, anyway. Downing was the first to wear a HANS in competition, and actor/racer Paul Newman was the second. But even as Hubbard made detailed presentations to sanctioning bodies and groups such as the International Conference of Motorsports Sciences, and even as his colleague, Dr. John Melvin, arguably the most respected voice in the history of American auto racing safety, stated his case about why head and neck restraints were vital. In the decade that spanned the HANS Device's debut in 1991 and the end of the 2000 season, fewer than 300 had been sold.

Indy Car racers such as Mario Andretti said that it wouldn't fit into their tight cockpits. NASCAR racers worried about its effect on peripheral vision. All racers worried that having something extra sitting atop their shoulders would hamper their ability to exit the car quickly in the case of a fire.

Earnhardt called the HANS Device "a damn noose."

"One thing I have learned as a driver is that whether it is weight or aerodynamics or something added to the cockpit, every safety feature in a race car is a performance penalty," Andretti now says of racers' built-in resistance. "It has to be implemented by the sanctioning body by rule. Then everyone has it. Everyone has to deal with it at once. Because I am sure not going to voluntarily add something that I think gives my competition an advantage because I have given myself a disadvantage. Safer or not."

Kyle Petty puts it in 2021 terms.

"Right now, during this COVID pandemic, you can't convince anybody to wear a mask," says Petty, who tried out an early HANS during the 1991 Winston Cup season before deciding it was too cumbersome. "How am I going to convince them to wear a head restraint?"

ULTIMATELY, THAT CONVINCING came in the form of overwhelming tragedy. When up-and-coming racer Rodriguez flipped over the wall at the entrance of Laguna Seca's famed downhill Corkscrew in 1999, the accident scene was so ghastly that it rattled even famously even-keeled Champ Car chief orthopedic expert, Dr. Terry Trammell. The 28-year-old Uruguayan's basilar skull fracture had caused him to bleed out instantly. Only six weeks later, Greg Moore, considered the future superstar of North American open wheel racing, suffered equally gruesome injuries in the season finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

Trammell and his coworker, longtime Indy 500 medical liaison Dr. Steven Olvey, were already pioneers when it came to motorsports injury data collection. Their first study had revealed that from 1978 to 1984, a stunning 89% of the major motorsports injuries were orthopedic, with only 10% being head injuries. But when they did a similar study that covered 1994 to 1998, head injuries had jumped to 58% in CART racing and 33% in NASCAR. And that was before the merciless seasons of 1999 and 2000.

"The cars had evolved so much and the speed of those cars had jumped so much in such a short period of time," says Darrell Waltrip, who made his Cup Series debut in 1972 and retired after the 2000 season. "But the basics of our safety, everything from belts to helmets to the walls at the racetrack, they were essentially the same as they had been for a long time."

After extensive HANS testing throughout 2000, CART announced that it would require all drivers to use the device during its oval races. In the Cup Series garage, there was no mandate, sticking to NASCAR's longtime practice of leaving such things up to drivers and teams as "independent contractors." So, only two drivers were wearing head and neck restraints during the deadly 2000 season. Kyle Petty, moving into the Cup car that was supposed to have been Adam's, returned to the track wearing the HANS and was pleasantly surprised at how less cumbersome it was compared with his turn with the clunky Model I nine years earlier.

The only other competitor to buy in was driver/owner Brett Bodine. He was the only full-time racer in the garage with an engineering degree and the only driver immediately swayed by Jim Downing's sales pitch at the same Indianapolis Motor Speedway test where Earnhardt had interrupted Downing's meeting with Helton.

"We were racing at Pocono Raceway the next weekend, and when I put that thing on, I got called every name in the book," Bodine recalled in 2019. "Sissy, pansy, candy ass, all of that. 'Hey man, what are you using that for?' But I ran every practice lap and race lap with it, and I could see all of my mirrors just fine."

Bodine wore his HANS for the remainder of the 2000 season, more than a dozen races. The longer he stuck with it, he found the comments he received began shifting from insults to inquiries. When Roper died that October, those inquiries increased. With his HANS atop his shoulders, Bodine finished 28th in the 2000 season finale, a cold, nasty day at Atlanta Motor Speedway, just a short drive south from Downing's shop where HANS Devices were stacked up, waiting to be sold.

"I said to anyone who asked, guys, we have to fix this," Bodine says. "You get made fun of, fine. But the right thing to do is the right thing to do. And I promised the HANS guys that I would do whatever I could to help them out before things got even worse."

Worse was coming. The 2001 Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt's last race, was 91 days away.

Part III of this four-part series on the life, death and legacy of Dale Earnhardt continues by revisiting the 2001 Daytona 500 with the people who lived it.