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NASCAR Officials Report Earnhardt's Accident Investigation

Aired February 23, 2001 - 9:14 a.m. ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: We want to take you live to Rockingham, North Carolina, now where a press conference is about to begin outside the NASCAR track there. Discussing the future of the sport is Mike Helpon, the president of NASCAR, and Gary Nelson, the Winston Cup Series director. Let's listen in.

GARY NELSON, DIRECTOR, WINSTON CUP: (JOINED IN PROGRESS) ... center down in Daytona Beach, Florida -- Mike.

MIKE HELPON, PRES., NASCAR: Before I explain exactly why we're here this morning, and as an update, but before I do that, Richard is here this morning to address questions concerning what we'll talk about this morning.

As you know, Richard Childress Racing has a press conference later. So you would be respectful and allow him to answer questions regarding this topic this morning. And then later in the day when they have the Richard Childress racing press conference, stick to that issue and just treat each one of them individually.

Secondly, I'd like to pass on, from Teresa Earnhardt, the thanks and the gratitude for all of the media's respect and attention to the family, and request that you continue your respectful handling, of a really tough situation for her and her family.

What we're doing this morning, we're updating you on our investigation. And what we have found in investigating Dale Earnhardt's car from the Sunday accident is that there was a broken left lap belt. The seat belt from the left side of the lap belts came apart.

We don't know why. We don't know how. We don't know when, yet. All we know is that there was a broken belt at this point.

We're not going to speculate today on theories. We're not going to address any judgments or speculation. And we hope that you followed the same pattern with us.

We will continue our investigation. We will do our best to come up with as many answers as possible. In the meantime, we're here to tell you about the broken lap belt. And we are telling crew chiefs in the Bush and the Cup and Trucker Rogers (ph) of what we've found conclusively so far.

With that, I guess we open it up to questions -- John (ph).

JOHN (ph): Yes. We have wireless mics in the room. Daniel (ph) is over here to my far right. Rick Humphrey over here to the far left.

So raise your hand and give you name and affiliation.

BRUCE FARN (ph), SPORTS TICKER: Bruce Farn (ph) from Sports Ticker (ph). When did you discover the lap belt that was broken? Was it Sunday night, Monday or later this week?

HELPON: It was Sunday evening.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That it might be good if Gary showed you what we're talking about right now, so that it's very clear or clear as it can be at this point -- Gary.

NELSON: Well, the lap belt is two pieces. One side -- this would be the right side, both from the roll cage. It comes down to about what a normal person's belt buckle would be.

The left side, then, comes up and attaches like this. That's makes a complete lap belt system.

What we found in the accident investigation was that this left side (INAUDIBLE), even though it was buckled when the safety crews got to him. This part here was not connected to the roll cage anymore. There was a separation right in there area. It became two pieces.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're having problems back here, sir. We couldn't hear you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We couldn't -- we couldn't hear him up here, either. Stand by a second.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The -- can you hear me now?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, the lap belt typically -- or in all cases, connects to the roll cage on the right side. It would come up. This buckle would be about where your belt buckle would be. And then this side would connect to the roll cage on the left side.

What the people that came to the scene that -- to Dale Earnhardt's aid found that the buckle was latched like this. And what we found later on in looking at the car was that when they unbuckled it, this piece ended up on the floor of the car. And this piece was still connected to the roll cage. It was separated right in there area between the metal hardware -- the two pieces of metal hardware here. So the webbing itself had separated.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, the -- go ahead, Don (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, basically, it appears that the major impact from Mr. Earnhardt was forward and to the right. Apparently, the belt gave way and it allowed his body to move forward and to the right, at which time he more than likely contacted the steering wheel with his chest and his face.

NELSON: Richard?

BILL CANE (ph), "RACER": Bill Cane (ph) with "Racer" magazine. How old was the -- was that race car? Was it a brand new car? And how old were those belts? Do you know?

NELSON: Yes, it was a brand new race car. It was a brand new set of belts. NASCAR mandates five-year limits. Those belts were made in November of 2000, which is when we built the car. And it was a brand new set of belts.

MIKE VEGA (ph), "BOSTON GLOBE": Mike Vega (ph), "Boston Global" here. Mike or Gary, maybe you could answer this two-part question.

Was this the failure of the fabric of the material that the belt is made from? And furthermore, was there any kind of independent shoulder harness that might have helped him? Or is this the only thing that had him anchored into the car?

HELPON: Yes, as I mentioned in my opening statement, we're not going to speculate at this point. All we know conclusively is that there everything else was intact with the harness, except for the left lap belt. Beyond that, we're not going to speculate or go beyond that conversation right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Was it the only thing that -- was that the only harness, the shoulder?

HELPON: Everything else in the harness was intact. The shoulders and everything, the right piece, everything was intact.

STAN CREEK (ph), "NATIONAL SPEED SPORT NEWS": Stan Creek (ph), for "National Speed Sport News." Either Mike or Gary, will you at least say whether the belt was cut? Did it appear to be either be cut or just like it had snapped apart?

HELPON: All right, let me -- let me one more time. Now, that's OK. That's fair. And I understand where you are coming from. But let me tell you one more time.

All we know conclusively is that the belt came apart. It separated. It's in two pieces. That's all we know conclusively at this point. We're not going to address any speculation. We've got, as you have, a gazillion ideas. And we've got to narrow all that down as best we can. But this morning, we're not going to speculate on what we may think, beyond the fact that we conclusively know that the lap belt is in two pieces right now. LEE SPENCER (ph), "SPORTING NEWS": Lee Spencer (ph) with the "Sporting News." R.C., was he wearing a five-point harness? And have you recommended that your other -- that your other drivers wear the HANS device this weekend?

RICHARD CHILDRESS, CHILDRESS RACING: They all wore the five- piece harness, the crotch strap, the shoulder harnesses and the two lap belts. We have been looking at the HANS device and other devices for safety. Dale Earnhardt was one of the most safety-conscious drivers out there, as well as all the other drivers in the garage area. And NASCAR is looking at that same situation at this time.

MIKE HARRIS (ph), ASSOCIATED PRESS: Mike Harris (ph), Associated Press. Gary, is this a totally unique situation? I mean, have -- has this kind of thing happened before with these belts in recent years?

NELSON: We've never seen it, and we've talked to people who are in the business to produce lap belts who have told us they've never seen it. So in 52 years of NASCAR Winston Cup racing, this was the first one of these that we've seen.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Could someone tell us who is the manufacturer of the belt?

HELPON: We're not going to address any specifics right now. Again, it goes back to jumping to judgments or conclusions that are not founded yet. So we're not going to talk about the manufacturer's names or anything else right now.

MIKE HEMBRIN (ph), "GRAMBLE NEWS" (ph): Mike Hembrin (ph), "Gramble News" (ph). Mike, would this lead you guys to attempt to change something about the belts this week or fairly soon?

HELPON: Well, as I said in the opening statement, we simply at this point in time, without any further conclusions as to any specific whys, whens or hows, want to be sure that every crew chief and the two garages here this weekend and the truck garages beginning next week in Miami know what we've found.

Because a great deal of our resource for us to be able to determine things and sometimes amend situations are the minds that are in that garage area. And we use them for a resource, as well as inform them of what we find when we find something that's specific. And we have in this case.

We also use outside specialists, consultants, professional consultants who have the ability to be an expert in fields that we need them for.

We will combine all that resource. If that -- if that calls us as to be able to come up with something that eliminates this, if we can ever reach that type of conclusion, then certainly we will look at it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mike, for the couple hundred charity night racers who are not the big league of NASCAR, what would you recommend they do in terms of examination of their seat belts in their Saturday night's race cars?

HELPON: Well, I think one of the -- again, we're not at a point to make any recommendations. But, one of the purposes for being with you today, number one, is to update on what we've conclusively found.

But secondly, it -- through the vehicle that you produce, that it will become apparent, and it will heighten the awareness, if you will.

Certainly, every racing series and every tour and division in NASCAR is unique in some regards, but very common in some regards. So it's a -- at this point in time, we're not able to make recommendations. We're simply wanting everybody to know what we found so that we can continue the research.

DAVID POLK (ph), "CHARLOTTE OBSERVER": David Polk (ph), "Charlotte Observer." Gary and Mike, not to belabor the point. I want to make sure I understand it, is that you said that the belt separated into two pieces. Where the two pieces -- the either end, was it metal or fabric where the separation took place?

NELSON: It was the webbing. The metal was still intact at each end. Actually, if you look at it, there's three pieces of metal and two pieces of fabric. The fabric between the buckle part and the adjuster part is where it broke. Right in the area where my index finger is right here.

KURT CABIN (ph), "INDIANAPOLIS STAR": Mike or Gary, Kurt Cabin (ph), "Indianapolis Star." Were there any other abnormalities that you found with the race car that you are concerned about with the seat? Anything else that you're concerned about?

NELSON: Well, we would -- we would ask everybody to use the same approach that we are. When we looked into this, it's easy to draw conclusions. It's easy to take theories and take off with them.

But what we really want to do is deal in fact. What we know is this separated. What we don't know conclusively is how, what, what contributed, all of those things that we're trying to investigate.

So what we -- we're -- from our end, we are making sure that we cover every base before we make any more statements as to what really happened in that car.

LARRY WOODY (ph), "THE TENNESSEAN" Gary, Larry Woody (ph) -- Gary, Larry Woody (ph) with "The Tennessean" in Nashville. Are you guys -- are there some kinds of test that you guys can perform and reasonably be sure you will eventually determine what caused it to break or what did happen?

NELSON: It's -- I mean, we're doing everything we've got -- we think we've got the best people working on this issue. And hopefully, we'll find an answer real quick and be able to say, This is exactly what happened.

But as in any study, you don't know when that answer will come or how it will come, or if they will ever come. We think -- we don't think there's a resource that we haven't already put to work on this, that can do a better job.

So we're very confident that a thorough study and investigation will be performed to try to find the bottom of this. But at this point, like I said, anything we said would be speculation. And we're not going to get into that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: At the point of separation, were the ends of the fabric frayed, or were they cleanly cut? And is there any chance that rescue workers cut the belt working on Dale?

NELSON: Well, we're not going to get into details about the cut. We know we had two pieces. We talked to the rescue people that were on the scene. We've got their statements.



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