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NASCAR Officials Report Earnhardt's Belt Was Broken

Aired February 23, 2001 - 9:30 a.m. ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Let's go back to the NASCAR press conference.

MIKE HELPON, PRES., NASCAR: (JOINED IN PROGRESS) ... answer that we can be certain, that we sit here and give you. We'll give it to you. We -- but we're not right now. And what we're not able to do is give you much more information. And I know you want a lot of it. And so do we. And we know more than you do right now. But we are still looking for answers.

But, we have gone through an extensive period of investigation in this car, as we did others in the past. But this one throws a unique angle in that, in the fact there's something in the harmonious cocoon, that Michael Walter (ph) talked about, that came apart.

Right now, we're not going to address the edges of it or the material per se or the manufacturer of it. Hopefully, we can come to some conclusive answers in the future to where we can address all of that.

But in the meantime, it was just an effort today of telling you that we found, in this case, something that was not supposed to be that way. And I'm sorry that we can't or will not give you any more information and answer every question that you would like to have right now.

But you've got to help us with this, so that we don't create a lot of jumping to conclusions without factual elements to support. And we're not going to answer those questions until we have a certainty in our statements to you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Take a couple of more questions.

BRUCE MARTIN (ph), SPORTS TICKER: Bruce Martin (ph) from Sports Ticker. And this is for Dr. Bohannon or Gary Nelson.

In lieu -- in light of the discovery that the belt broke, do we know what this had likely hit part of the roll cage, hit part of the steering wheel, that might have been what caused, you know, the blow to the head?

DR. STEVE BOHANNON: It appears this did allow his body to move forward. And it appears that probably his chin struck the steering column, in such a way that the forces were transmitted up the mandible up each side to break the structure of each skull. And of course the chest hitting would account for the rib fractures on the left side.

DUSTIN LONGWAY (ph), "MARTIN": Dustin Longway (ph), "Martin" newspapers.

Two question. Richard, now that you know what happened, what can be done from a car owner/crew chief perspective on the safety of the car?

And also for Gary or Mike, do you still have the possession of that car? Or where is that? Are you still using that in the investigation?

RICHARD CHILDRESS, CHILDRESS RACING: Yes, so far as the safety of the car, we were -- we are always looking at safer ways to make these Winston Cup cars.

And as of right now, we don't -- we don't know what to do until the investigation is further down the road to tell us what we could do to make them safer. I think that our cars will be running basically the same step here until we know something different.

GARY NELSON, DIRECTOR, WINSTON CUP: And yes, we do have the car.

SANDY MCKEY (ph), BALTIMORE "SUN": Sandy McKey (ph), the Baltimore "Sun." For those of us who are not real familiar with the seat belt, the 5.0 seat belt, where do the shoulder harness -- where does that attach to the car? And when the belt breaks on one side or the other, does that loosen the should harness?

NELSON: The shoulder harness, it's like you say. It goes over the shoulder and attaches to the roll cage behind the driver. The lap belt goes over the driver's hips and attaches to the roll cage below and behind the driver's hips.

There are five points of attachment for the harness. The lap belt, the two on the lap belt, the two -- these two points here, being in the main part of the whole thing. Losing one is like, like we said, it's the first time that we have ever seen it.

We can't speculate anything other than what you would think of. You had five places holding, and one of them -- one of them went away. All you can say is the integrity of that was certainly compromised.

BOB MCFERN (ph), "PRODIGY": Bob McFern (ph), the "Prodigy." Richard, is this a unique belt that was manufactured for Dale? Or was this just a off-the-shelf item that you might purchase for any of the drivers out there?

CHILDRESS: I think I understood the question was, Was this belt something that you buy over the counter for most of the drivers? Most of the drivers are using this similar belt, and there are some that's using different. But, yes, it's a belt that you buy that we have used. It's the same belt that Dale Earnhardt's used for...

MCFERN (ph): Thank you.

CHILDRESS: ... forever, really.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We will take one more question. I think Rick is back there.

BRAD LIFTON (ph), "TIME": Brad Lifton (ph) from "Time" magazine for Dr. Bohannon. You said that the impact of his chin on the steering wheel would have provided enough force to crack the back of the skull. Can you kind of show us how those dynamics would have happened, where the transfer of force would have happened through his body?

BOHANNON: Well, in respect to the Earnhardt family, I don't want to be too detailed. But basically, the skull is made up of various bones that are fused together by suture lines. And these are potential weak spots of the skull.

And if the force is hit the base of the brain and in the right manner, the base of the skull, these suture lines can separate. And in this case, causing a ring fracture or a basal skull fracture.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are a few minutes late, but we're going to keep the Q&A session a little bit longer.

MIKE VEGA (ph), "BOSTON GLOBE": For Mike and Gary, Mike Vega (ph) from the "Boston Globe." I just want to be clear that until you find more evidence that supports whatever theory you are coming to, are you stopping short of calling this or characterizing it as a malfunction of equipment?

NELSON: I think you can say that probably the best description that I thought of it is, is the integrity of the restraint system was severely compromised by the webbing separating.

GAB HAMM (ph), "TRIBUNE": Gab Hamm (ph) from the Tribune newspaper for Dr. Bohannon.

Dr. John Melbin (ph) in Detroit has determined through expensive testing that if the -- and being a proponent of the six-point belt, has determined that if the pelvic area is allowed to accelerate early on in the impact process, then that exacerbates the head movement at the top of the entire process.

Would this separation of the belt actually have increased the head accelerations by the continual whiplash process as Dr. Melvin (ph) puts it?

BOHANNON: I think that it's really to speculate as to the motion of the body. I think studies would have certainly have to be done on the dynamics of the crash. We don't know exactly what happened on impact. But there's a number of theories.

DAVID MIN (ph), "STATE": But, Doctor, this is David Min (ph) with the "State" newspaper.

Can you say for sure whether Dale Earnhardt would be alive today if the belt had not broken? And would a full-face helmet would have made a difference?

BOHANNON: Certainly no one can say for sure what would have happened. If his restraint system, if his belts had held, he would have had a much better chance of survival. Certainly his chest and head shouldn't have made contact with the steering column, resulting in these injuries. A different set of injuries would have occurred, and we don't know what they would have been.

In regards to a full-face helmet, I think that that could have played a role in his injuries. If he had had protection over his chin and in this area of contact, that the forces would have been different to his body and he would have had a different pattern of injuries.

So certainly in this particular case, you know, a full-face helmet would have been a benefit.

MIKE (ph), ASSOCIATED PRESS: Dr. Bohannon, Mike (ph) here from AP again.

In light of all the talk about the HANS device, I guess that this has to be asked. In this situation, especially with the belt breaking, would that have likely made any difference, if he had a HANS device?

BOHANNON: First of all, I'd like to go on record in saying I do support further head-and-neck restraints. I think that that's certainly something that certainly needs to be addressed and is being addressed in studies ongoing.

In this particular and unique situation to where his body was not restrained, I am not convinced that the HANS device would have made a difference. His body and his face would have still made a contact with the steering wheel. And he would have still had the forces transferred, I think, as they were.

So in his unique situation here, I am not convinced that it would have helped. But I do like the device.

KEVIN GELRY (ph), "ST. PETERSBURG TIMES": Mike or Gary, Kevin Gelry (ph) from the "St. Petersburg Times."

Just wondering if you can tell us who is doing the testing on the belts, and how long do you perceive that the testing will continue?

NELSON: We've -- we've got some experts in the field that are looking at it. And that's all that we would like to say about it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have no more questions?

MIKE MULHAN (ph): One more here with Mike Mulhan (ph).

Is NASCAR doing anything this weekend to change anything, like add a second belt or demand the HANS device or put up soft walls? Is NASCAR going to do anything this weekend in the safety area?

HELPON: I thought that we were pretty clear on all of this, that if we knew that there was something that we could do, we would do it. But in as much as all that we know at this point that we've got a separated lap belt, that in the 52-year history of this sport and in the industry that develops these parts and pieces have never seen before, we don't have a conclusion today that gives us the ability to react to it.

So we'll open up in Rockingham, and we will race in Rockingham with the same rules and regulations, the same inspection process with the cars that begin with coming off of the truck and inspecting the safety features of those cars before it ever has a chance to go into the inspection base, just as we do every weekend.

So Mike (ph), to answer your question clear and simple, no, we are not going to put up soft walls, and we're not making any changes unless we find something in the next 24 hours that we can specifically do, that's -- that's a fix and not a detriment to a different area.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Gentlemen, thank you very much.

Just like to remind everybody there will be a briefing at 11:30 with the Dale Earnhardt Inc. And briefly following that...

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: You've been watching a news conference just outside of the NASCAR track in Rockingham, North Carolina.

Just want to let you know who was talking. There was Richard Childress, who owns the team and Earnhardt's car. Mike Helton, the president of NASCAR. Gary Nelson, the Winston Cup Series director. And then Dr. Bohannon, who was the doctor who responded to Earnhardt once the crash took place.

Now, the most revealing piece of information that they gave us is that NASCAR officials are confirming, after investigating Earnhardt's car, that there was a broken left lap belt, and that it came apart. It was found in two pieces. They are not saying exactly how that happened. They are not speculating. They don't want to the give any theories right now. But they did confirm the left lap belt did come apart.

Dr. Bohannon who responded to Earnhardt said that it makes sense if the belt broke, that that could be why his body went forward to the right, causing his chest and head to hit the steering column.

Officials also said that this was a brand new set of belts. They were made in November of 2000. And then, this is the first time in more than 50 years that -- of racing that they've seen a belt like this come apart like this.

The investigation is going to continue. No doubt, we will be covering that. And then as the president of NASCAR, Mike Helton, said the widow of racing legend Dale Earnhardt is expressing gratitude to fans all around the world for their support.

Teresa Earnhardts writes in a letter to fans, quote: "Remember the things about him that made you happy that you were his fan. Remember the man who loved life. He was the happiest person I know. And that can comfort us all. Gratefully, Teresa Earnhardt."



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