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After Earnhardt's death, safety advancements since 2001 are wide-ranging, still evolving

Ken Willis
The Daytona Beach News-Journal

Even in the immediate aftermath of Dale Earnhardt’s 2001 death, there was a feeling that NASCAR would soon turn its focus on driver safety into a revolution.

Twenty years later, the differences are startling. There’s the visible changes since 2001: SAFER Barriers on the track walls, HANS devices around drivers’ necks, enhanced padding and restraint systems in the cockpits.

In an August, 2001, news conference in Atlanta, Dr. James Raddin Jr. was part of the post-Earnhardt team that explained what caused the 2001 tragedy and what could be done to help prevent future fatalities.

The unseen improvements include structural changes to the chassis, data collection through black-box technology, and, according to Steve O’Donnell, a whole new way of thinking about life and limb.

NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O'Donnell.

“The entire culture changed regarding safety,” says O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. The HANS and the SAFER Barriers, we could’ve stopped at those but we didn’t, and it’s really the culture that allows us to put the changes in place.

More:Dale Earnhardt was destined for greatness

“People fought the HANS device. The SAFER Barriers — you had people saying, ‘I don’t really understand the investment.’ Our sport is based on drivers beating and banging, so we better put them in a safe place to be able to do that.”

The SAFER Barrier, designed to cushion crashes into concrete retaining walls, has become a common piece of infrastructure at major speedways.

NASCAR drivers were late adopters of the HANS restraints

In 2001, head-and-neck restraints — the HANS, particularly — was gaining users in other forms of racing but very few NASCAR racers were using one, even after three head-on crashes produced fatalities in the season before Dale Earnhardt’s death. Such restraints became mandatory soon after the 2001 Daytona 500.

Today, the HANS is practically viewed as an extension of every driver’s helmet.

NASCAR’s biggest commitment to driver safety was its Research & Development Center, which opened in 2003 outside Charlotte in Concord, N.C.

John Patalak is NASCAR’s senior director of safety engineering at the R&D Center. Twenty years ago, he was attending Penn State University and watched the Daytona 500 from his apartment. The gravity of Earnhardt’s death was apparent to him.

“Just a shock for everybody,” said Patalak, who would join NASCAR four years later.

Ugly wrecks, but no more fatalities 

Patalak and his staff collect black-box data from every wreck — large and small — from every race under the NASCAR umbrella, including not just the three major national series but regional circuits as well.

They take the information and physically put it to the test inside the sprawling safety headquarters.

John Patalak, senior director of safety engineering, with a test dummy at NASCAR's R&D Center in Concord, N.C.

There have been no NASCAR fatalities since February 2001, but each season brings several hard wrecks — often head-on crashes into walls — that make some onlookers wonder how much worse things might've been 20 or more years ago.

Patalak says he doesn’t keep count of how many drivers survive wrecks that might’ve done more damage in earlier times.

The HANS Device has been credited with preventing many major injuries over the past 20 years.

“It’s not something we have a number for,” he says. “We really don’t have to justify what we do, because the expectation is that we’re going to make it safer. Our industry — all of the partners — expect it to get safer and safer. Racing is still dangerous. It’s always going to have a risk associated with it.”

While Patalak’s team still uses crash-test dummies and sled tests, modern technology has provided yet another invaluable tool — computerized human body modeling.

A graphic of the HANS Device.

“It’s literally a human body model in a computer,” he says. “It has a skeletal system, all the internal organs, muscles and ligaments. You can do all of this in the computer. You can look at nuances of things that the crash-test dummies can’t tell you.

“It’s allowing us to explore areas of safety that weren’t available to us just 10 years ago. The improvements are still small, percentage-wise, but it opens up a whole new world.”

'A startling difference' in today's race car safety features

In 2001, you could look at pictures of cars and drivers from an earlier generation and marvel at the advances in safety. Today, you see big advances from 2001 — inside the cockpit, around a driver’s neck, attached to the old concrete wall. Future generations might feel similarly about their own advancements from today.

“There’s a startling difference,” Patalak says of modern advances. “Seats, helmets, all the safety equipment surrounding the driver in that environment, is vastly different."

So far, it's always been that way.

“Hindsight is always easy," Patalak says. "When we look at pictures of drivers getting into the cars in the ’50s, at first glance it’s, ‘Oh my goodness how could they do that?’ But at that time, they were required to wear seatbelts when you couldn’t buy a car that came with seatbelts.

"I think you have to have perspective. At least I hope we’ll have the same perspective when people look at what we’ve done 20 years from now.”