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Editorial

From NASCAR Typical to NASCAR Tragedy

 by Karen Courcy
February 28, 2001

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Daytona 500 program
(courtesy of Pete McCole)

Sometimes you just have to wonder why things happen the way they do. I imagine not only the Dale Earnhardt fans, but all fans of motorsports are thinking just that. Looking back at Daytona, many people ask why is it that in such a tremendous crash; like that which Tony Stewart was involved in, he walked away with little to no injuries. Yet what seemed like a normal every day accident in NASCAR racing ended in tragedy for Dale Earnhardt. What was the difference? And why did this happen?

175 laps into the race coming out of turn 2, Robby Gordon tapped Ward Burton's Dodge, which turned Burton's car into Stewart's car. Stewart's car smashed into the backstretch wall, lifting his car up 20 feet into the air and landing upside down on top of Robby Gordon's car. It then proceeded to go into several barrel rolls down the backstretch, landing on and beside his teammate Bobby Labonte, where he was knocked unconscious for a few minutes. Looking at this horrific accident, you would think there would be no chance for survival, but this is where the law of physics comes in and saved Tony Stewart's life.

One lap to go and Earnhardt did everything he could to hold back the pack, letting Dale Jr and Michael Waltrip race it to the end. All the while, he was fending off Ken Schrader and Sterling Marlin. Somewhere in a fraction of a second there was a bump, then the air got taken off of Earnhardt's car and he got loose, sending him almost straight into the wall doing 190mph. But at that speed the rules of physics didn't work in Earnhardt's favor. He was lifted from his car and was brought to Halifax Hospital where he was pronounced dead later that evening, witnessed by millions as Mike Helton informed the masses. And what seemed to be a typical NASCAR crash turned into tragedy in just that fraction of a second. 


Daytona 500 ticket
(courtesy of Pete McCole)

Where do the rules of physics come into play with both tragic accidents? Tony Stewart's car was slightly lifted before hitting the wall straight on. Since his car was lifted up off the ground, it broke that barrier of a head on hit at 190mph. With his car tossing and turning into the air, and tumbling over and over, all that energy from the impact of hitting the wall was let go by him being dragged down the back stretch till he came to a stop. With Dale Earnhardt he went from about 55 mph to a nearly a complete stop hitting the wall. His car stopped within fraction of a second, and so too was his life.

Many will debate the fact on whether or not the HANS device would have saved Dale Earnhardt in this tragic accident, but no one knows, not now, not ever. We can only hope that with this loss of a legend the drivers will take more responsibility for their own safety, and in effect use the HANS and other possible life saving devices.

Somebody asked me how will the drivers go back out on the track and race after what has happened? My answer, "Live or die, it's all in the love and passion for the sport they can't live without".

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