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Monday, April 16

Persistence vindicates seat belt maker
By Jack Arute

The Orlando Sentinel is owed an apology. When the central Florida paper went to court to get a look at Dale Earnhardt's autopsy photos I lamented their actions. Tim Franklin, The Sentinel's publisher maintained that they were simply attempting to get to the bottom of the seven-time NASCAR champion's death.

Disingenuous was my response. Leave the investigation to the experts, I cried.

Guess what? Were it not for the Sentinel's dogged pursuit, many of us would still be speculating upon the purported failure of Earnhardt's left lap belt.

The infamous lap belt. The center of attention after NASCAR revealed that they discovered Dale's left lap belt in two pieces following his crash. NASCAR president, Mike Helton was careful not to speculate on how the lap belt became separated. But we felt relieved on one level, to learn that a safety system failed, even if it was the first such failure in NASCAR's history.

Fast forward to events of last week. First, Dr. Barry Meyers, the Duke University expert appointed by the courts to provide the Sentinel with a detailed analysis of Earnhardt's autopsy including the photos.

Dr. Meyers four-page written analysis took us back to the beginning when he attributed death to a skull fracture. The debate regarding the need for head and neck restraints took center stage yet again. Shuffled to the shadows was the issue of the "failed" seat belt. Meyers reported that his investigation showed injuries compatible with the five-point harness system remaining in tact for at least a sufficient amount of time to do its job.

Once Dr. Meyers (and the Sentinel) published their findings, NASCAR announced that they have initiated a comprehensive investigation of their own. They will use experts to assist them, but we should not expect answers until August.

Dr. Steve Bohannon, the doctor who treated Earnhardt immediately following his fatal Daytona crash, backtracked regarding some of his suppositions as to what happened to Dale Earnhardt in his final moments.

Then, on ESPN Radio, Bill Simpson, the founder of Simpson Safety Equipment revealed that he has a video that seems to show an EMT entering Earnhardt's car with a knife and that in his opinion the EMT's actions with that knife account for the severed seatbelt found at the scene.

Simpson and his company have been taken over the coals concerning the lap belt. NASCAR removed the identification of the sample lap belt they displayed seven weeks ago at their press conference, but everyone who knows anything about racing immediately knew that it was a Simpson product identified.

From the beginning, Bill Simpson stood behind his product. He insisted that in all his years of manufacture and with more than 1 million lap belts manufactured during that time never had one failed that was installed and maintained properly.

Still, Bill Simpson received death threats, warped individuals slashed the tires on his automobile and NASCAR never invited Simpson to examine the belt in question. Bill Simpson did catch a glimpse of the belt when he along with Kenny Schrader and Rusty Wallace visited NASCAR's Charlotte location where the crashed Chevy of Earnhardt's resides. But until Dr. Meyers exonerated the belt system, debate raged about its purported failure and focus shifted from the need for increased investigation regarding neck and head safety.

It really doesn't matter whether Simpson's "fan video" clearly shows an EMT cutting Earnhardt's belt. Dr. Meyers has vindicated Bill Simpson and his company. Simpson and all of us connected with racing have the Orlando Sentinel to ultimately thank for that.

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