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Faulty Seat Belt May Have Contributed to Dale Earnhardt's Death

Aired February 23, 2001 - 4:13 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

STEPHEN FRAZIER, CNN ANCHOR: We are being told today that the life of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt might have been saved had it not been for a faulty seat belt. At a news conference today, NASCAR officials disclosed that part of the lap belt used by Earnhardt apparently came apart.

Whether before, during or after this fatal crash at Daytona, no one seems to know yet. Today, the doctor who rushed to Earnhardt's aid said Earnhardt's chances would've been much better had the broken belt worked out. It's a mystery NASCAR can't explain yet.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GARY NELSON, DIR., WINSTON CUP: What the people that came to the scene that -- to Dale Earnhardt's aid found was 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 this area, between the metal hardware -- the two pieces of metal hardware here. So the webbing itself had separated.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FRAZIER: The physician who attended the scene said Earnhardt's chin may have hit the steering wheel, which would cause the massive head injury that apparently killed him instantly.

Now, joining us now to talk a little bit more about this is Marty Smith of NASCAR.com.

Mr. Smith, thank you for joining us. This discussion of the belt, we should refine our understanding of it. It's not the kind of thing we drive in our cars at home. It's much more restrictive, isn't it?

MARTY SMITH, NASCAR.COM: Yes, sir it is. It is actually a five- point harness, which essentially means that it latches in five different places, one over the belt buckle, two on either side and two over your shoulders.

And the area in question is over here on the left near the door. That part frayed between the buckles. The cloth itself actually frayed and broke. And so Mr. Earnhardt was thrust towards the steering wheel during the accident.

FRAZIER: Show us again with your hands now. He is supposed to be actually strapped in so tight he can barely move in the car, isn't that right?

SMITH: Yes, sir, that's true.

It's -- the part that broke is right around in here. And it buckles right here and right here at your belt. And the part that broke was really close over here to the latch near the driver's-side door, essentially -- what would be the driver's side door. And NASCAR would not say whether that part was frayed or cut cleanly. But that's the part that frayed right around in here.

FRAZIER: I know some drivers even employ a kind of fiberglass tunnel to keep their legs from flailing around in those high-speed crashes that so many drivers can walk away from. Did he employ that?

SMITH: You know what, sir, I'm not an expert by any means on this area.

FRAZIER: OK.

SMITH: All I really know is what NASCAR said today.

FRAZIER: Well, before we talk more about the accident itself, let's hear what people up at NASCAR are saying about it. We know that Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- also who was driving in the Daytona 500 we're looking at right now -- is at Rockingham, North Carolina today, preparing for the next race, and had a few things to say about his dad.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DALE EARNHARDT JR., NASCAR DRIVER: I miss my father. And I've cried for him. But out of my own selfish pity is the reason for those emotions. And I just try to maintain a good -- good focus for the future and just remember that he's in a better place, a place that we all want to be.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FRAZIER: Back now with Marty Smith. This -- these are very important developments today, because drivers had no idea what would have caused this. I mean, some drivers have walked away from crashes that seemed much more severe than what killed Dale Earnhardt. Isn't that right?

SMITH: Yes, sir. Several of them looked much worse. It's hard to say what caused it. You know, you get into your car every day expecting to be safe. And you take that for granted. And these race car drivers know they have fine safety equipment. But the part in question, you never know where along the line that part may have been -- you never know where along the line that part may have been... FRAZIER: We do know, just wrapping up, that in the 52 years NASCAR has been using belts, this has never happened to any driver before.

SMITH: No, sir, 52 years. Winston Cup director Gary Nelson today said that this is the first time they have seen this.

FRAZIER: Well, thanks for your insights into what might have happened. Marty Smith from NASCAR.com, thank you very much.

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