Does He Have to Die in Vain?


When Jochen Rindt died in a Formula One crash, the great driver Jackie Stewart spent the week before the funeral fulfilling obligations. He did a fashion show, filmed a television commercial, met with lawyers. As to why he did all that in a time of grief, Stewart said, "The funeral is less important than the accident."

A racer who lived on the razor's edge, he wanted to know why Rindt's accident happened. He wanted to know why his friend died with medical attention within reach. He wanted to prevent the next death.

Stewart raged that as Rindt lay in an ambulance, he might have been saved by a Grand Prix Medical Unit 20 yards away. But the unit's offers of assistance were rebuffed by ambulance workers.

The accident? "A mechanical failure, I am almost sure," Stewart wrote in a memoir, "probably a broken drive shaft. . . . This is the only coherent explanation; nothing else squares with what happened."

Then Stewart asked, "Does it matter? Yes, obviously." Drivers want to know what happened. "We must minimize risk as much as possible--the risk of having an accident, the risk of not surviving one."

Three times the Formula One world champion, Stewart minimized risk by hiring a personal emergency doctor. "I've got to have somebody around who's up to the job, who can save my life if necessary, or keep some idiot from cutting off my leg if there is no reason to remove it."

Stewart never drove again after a day in 1973 when teammate Francois Cevert was killed. Later owner of a F1 team, Stewart left racing a year ago in January at age 61, six months after selling his team to Ford for $96 million.

Once racing's most dangerous genre, Formula One now may be the safest with no small thanks to the insistence of Jackie Stewart.

On the other hand, there is NASCAR.

That organization's rule book reminds drivers they work in "an inherently dangerous sport. ... Although safety generally is everyone's concern, NASCAR cannot be and is not responsible for all or even most aspects of the safety effort. That responsibility instead rests with the various participants."

Of major auto racing organizations, only NASCAR puts its drivers at risk and washes its hands of responsibility for their lives. Only NASCAR does not have a medical/safety team traveling to all races. While F1 and Indy-car leagues share safety findings, NASCAR closes a curtain of secrecy.

Even now, three weeks after Dale Earnhardt's death in the Daytona 500, there are three theories as to how he was killed, two suggested by NASCAR, the third by common sense:

1) A seat-belt failure allowed Earnhardt's chin to hit the steering wheel, causing a skull fracture.

2) The belt's failure allowed his body to move forward with such force that he struck the top of his head on the steering wheel.

3) Violent whiplash caused a skull fracture cutting arteries to his brain.

Anyone who cares about driver safety -- a Jackie Stewart, say -- would want to know as precisely as possible what happened. He'd certainly want to know in light of an epidemic of death. In the previous nine months, three other NASCAR drivers died, all with injuries similar to Earnhardt's.

You'd think NASCAR drivers themselves would demand answers. You'd think they'd say, "Hell, no, we're not going another mile until we know what happened to Dale." You'd think so, but you'd think so only if you didn't know NASCAR's history.

It's a dictatorship. Commandments are handed down, careers made and unmade by arbitrary fiat. In 1969, some drivers refused to race at Talladega because the new track put them in unprecedented danger. They had formed the Professional Drivers Association, Richard Petty, president.

Here's what NASCAR did about King Richard and his rebels: It ran Talladega without them. Soon enough, the PDA folded.

NASCAR's nature was made clear in the Orlando Sentinel the week before the Daytona 500. The week before Earnhardt's death, the newspaper published a series called "Racing Safety: Drivers at Risk." When reporter Ed Hinton asked about safety, NASCAR officials, unlike officials in other racing organizations, refused specific answers.

In 15 major auto racing fatalities since 1991, Hinton wrote that 12 drivers might have survived had they worn a head-and-neck support device (HANS) that minimizes whiplash injuries. The newspaper had sought autopsy records of Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin, NASCAR drivers killed in New Hampshire in 2000. But that state's law makes such records private.

Anyone seeking to understand Earnhardt's death, then, needs to know which theory best stands up to examination. Did the seat-belt failure put him at terminal risk? Or did he die of a preventable whiplash injury before the seat-belt failure mattered?

With no answers coming from NASCAR, the Sentinel asked a neurosurgical expert if autopsy photos might resolve the questions. The expert said he could tell in a minute.

However, Teresa Earnhardt didn't want anyone to see the photographs of her husband. Though autopsy photos are public records in Florida, she gained a judge's order prohibiting access. The Sentinel argued that public records cannot be closed, and the matter is now in the courts.

Anyone who has read an autopsy report understands the widow's pain. Exacerbating her suffering, she now finds herself embroiled in a media/political controversy. Coming to her side, sympathetic Florida legislators have introduced a law closing autopsy reports.

They call the proposed law the Earnhardt Family Protection Act.

Well and good. Yet one question begs for an answer.

Shouldn't someone have protected Dale?

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