From the archives: Belt maker offers own crash report

ATLANTA -- Determined to protect his good name, Bill Simpson, whose company made Dale Earnhardt's seat belts, plans to attend today's 3 p.m. news conference when NASCAR releases its long-awaited report on the driver's death.

Simpson, whose company has been under fire since NASCAR claimed shortly after the crash that a broken seat belt contributed to Earnhardt's death, was expected to be accompanied by attorneys and a group of experts.

The experts, who have just completed an investigation for the company Simpson once headed, contend Earnhardt's left-side lap belt broke during his fatal crash on the final lap of the Feb. 18 Daytona 500 because his safety-belt system was not installed according to manufacturer's instructions.

A copy of their report, obtained by the Orlando Sentinel, maintains the broken belt didn't contribute to Earnhardt's fatal injuries and specifies that "this is also consistent with the findings of the Myers report."

That reference, made by two engineers at Accident Reconstruction Analysis Inc. (ARAI) of Raleigh, N.C., is to Dr. Barry Myers of Duke University, who reached the same conclusion in April as a court-appointed independent expert.

Engineers inspected car

Investigating engineers David C. McCandless and Charles R. Manning Jr. said in the ARAI report that they were allowed to inspect Earnhardt's wrecked car, with Gary Nelson, NASCAR's chief technical officer, and Steve Peterson, his top assistant for safety matters, as witnesses.

McCandless and Manning state in their report that in Earnhardt's car, they found "the rear anchor points of the lap-belt assembly [to the chassis] were approximately 5 inches behind the back line of the seat. Simpson Race Products recommends mounting 2 1/2 inches forward of the extended back line of the seat." So in essence, they maintain, the belts were anchored a total of 7 1/2 inches to the rear of the point recommended by Simpson.

"The belt geometry in the Earnhardt vehicle," they continue, "was such that the adjuster was prone to rotation during tightening the belt. The angle of the Earnhardt belt was not in compliance with the 45-degree recommendation of Simpson Race Products."

They conclude that the belt adjuster rotated enough to cause bunching and/or crimping of the belt in one side of the adjuster -- enough that on impact, there occurred a process known in the auto-safety industry as "dumping."

The process has been described as similar to the old party trick of tearing a thick telephone book in half by crimping it in the middle, starting a tear, and then tearing it in half through leverage rather than strength.

" 'Dumping' was a term we didn't know about until after Daytona," David Hart, Richard Childress Racing's communications director, said Monday. "If we'd known about dumping before Daytona, that may have been a factor in the way we installed the belts."

Hart said Childress confirmed that the belt anchors were installed as described by McCandless and Manning, but added that anchoring "that style of belt" according to Simpson's instructions "would have caused the adjuster to be inside the seat, which wouldn't work right. The instructions aren't consistent."

Hart also quoted Childress as saying, "We've used that same installation for a number of years. That's the way Dale's belts were installed when he had the accident at Talladega [Ala.] in 1996." In that crash, although Earnhardt's car rolled onto its side and was struck hard on the roof by the onrushing car of Kenny Schrader, Earnhardt suffered a cracked sternum, which didn't keep him from racing the following week.

"We at Richard Childress Racing installed the belts for Dale," Hart said, "at his request. He wanted them [anchored] that far back because that style belt just wouldn't work any other way."

NASCAR Vice President Jim Hunter, asked whether the sanctioning body's presentation today will address the issue of why Earnhardt's lap belt broke, replied, "Oh, absolutely." But as to whether the opinions of NASCAR's experts will agree or differ with those of McCandless and Manning, Hunter said, "I'm not going to comment on that."

Report to make conclusions

Hunter confirmed that today's report, which follows the lengthiest and most intensive investigation in NASCAR's 53-year history, will draw conclusions about the causes of Earnhardt's death. That appeared to end speculation growing in recent days that the NASCAR report would amount more to a catalog of facts found than a profound document of conclusions reached.

Simpson, reached at home in Indianapolis, confirmed he plans to attend today's NASCAR news conference. But he wouldn't comment about the ARAI report, other than to remark: "I'll say what I've been saying since Day One: that Simpson seat belts, when installed according to the instructions supplied with Simpson seat belts, will not fail. Period."

Simpson also confirmed that attorneys Jim Voyle and Bob Horn will accompany him to the NASCAR news conference, and that McCandless, Manning and occupant-restraint expert Bill Muzzy, who conducted a separate analysis, also likely will be there.

He maintained that he did not hire any of the three accident reconstructionists and that they were probably hired by his financial partners.

Simpson resigned in July as chairman of the company he founded, "for my sanity," he said, after being beleaguered -- including receiving death threats -- for months at the center of the Earnhardt controversy.

McCandless, Manning and Muzzy "aren't pro-Simpson guys, and they aren't pro-NASCAR guys," Simpson said. "They're down-the-middle-of-the-road guys."

Hunter said NASCAR's report will be voluminous, consisting of a 24-page summary statement aimed at public comprehension of the findings, and several hundred pages of appendices in scientific language, documenting the analytical methods of NASCAR's contracted experts.

3 major participants

Although Hunter still refused to identify the experts NASCAR hired for the investigation, three were identified to the Sentinel last week as major participants in the investigation. Biodynamic Research Corp. of San Antonio headed by Dr. James Benedict and Dr. James Raddin Jr., has spearheaded the biomechanical part of the investigation -- the body movement involved in Earnhardt's death.

The University of Nebraska at Lincoln's Roadside Safety Research Center has been handling the car-crash aspects, headed by Dr. Dean Sicking. Autoliv, a Swedish-based passenger-car safety-equipment manufacturer with a testing facility at Auburn Hills, Mich., has been conducting crash-dummy and sled tests.