It is impossible to make a trip to Daytona International Speedway and not think about Dale Earnhardt. Or to witness a crash, in any race, and not be thankful for the safety advancements NASCAR has made in the two decades since Earnhardt’s death.
Sunday afternoon before the 63rd running of the Daytona 500, ESPN will air a new E60 documentary on Earnhardt’s crash 20 years ago and its lasting effect on the sport. Award-winning ESPN senior writer Ryan McGee was the reporter for the story, with the program produced by Scott Cikowski, Jason Kostura, and John Minton.
Recognizable names like Dale Earnhardt Jr., former NASCAR President Mike Helton, and Kyle Petty make appearances. There is also insight from Dr. Steve Bohannon, the trauma physician who was the first to reach Earnhardt’s car after the accident and remained with Earnhardt until he was pronounced dead at Halifax Medical Center. Also included is Ryan Newman, who discusses his violent accident at the end of last year’s Daytona 500.
RACER received an early screening of the show with the agreement of not giving too much away. E60 Presents – Intimidator: The Lasting Legacy of Dale Earnhardt is set to air at noon ET Sunday.
It is emotional and eye-opening viewing.
Earnhardt remains the last driver to lose his life in a NASCAR national series race. However, he also was the last in what had been a rash of driver deaths, particularly during the 2000 and 2001 seasons. Among them were Kyle Petty’s 19-year-old son Adam, Kenny Irwin Jr., Tony Roper, and Blaise Alexander.
Earnhardt was the sport’s biggest star, and losing the seven-time champion seemed impossible. And when it happened, it couldn’t go without something changing. As viewers will understand, though, it’s possible Earnhardt’s death could have been prevented.
There is a misconception in the racing world that the Earnhardt tragedy was the reason or forced NASCAR’s hand into making significant safety advances. It’s worth a reminder that there were already innovations being worked through when Earnhardt died, including soft walls and the development of the HANS device.
The HANS was introduced to NASCAR in 1991 but not mandatory at the time of his death. Five drivers were wearing the HANS device in the 2001 Daytona 500. Earnhardt was not one of them. He also wasn’t wearing a full-faced helmet, which would also later become mandatory. Had Earnhardt been wearing both devices on February 18, 2001, the result of his accident might have been different.
It is also worth pointing out that Earnhardt was against NASCAR having its drivers use the HANS device, as the documentary also relates.
Yet, there is no denying that Earnhardt’s death did accelerate the sport’s safety processes. The HANS device was officially mandated in October of 2001. Two years later, NASCAR required that all tracks have SAFER barriers installed.
Updates to both the cars and the tracks have continued since then, and NASCAR opened its R&D Center in 2003. Everything from competition related items to safety innovations can on the Concord, North Carolina facility.