Today in Sports History: February 18th

2/18/2001 - Earnhardt dies in accident

On the final lap of the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Sr., at the wheel of his signature black No. 3 Chevrolet, grazes the side of another vehicle and crashes head-on into a wall. He was taken to the hospital where he was announced dead on arrival at the age of 49. It was assumed that Earnhardt had nudged into the opposing car so that Michael Waltrip, his teammate who was ahead of him in the race, could have a clearer path to the victory lane. "The only reason I won this race was because of Dale Earnhardt," Waltrip said after the race.

Nascar had always struggled to receive mainstream attention, even though it was estimated as the second-strongest sports league behind only the NFL. But the death of Dale Earnhardt, the sport's biggest star who had won a record seven Winston Cup titles, garnered widespread coverage from all news outlets. It wasn't every day that a sport's marquee performer passed away, let alone while he was competing in his respective event. The fact that it happened during the Daytona 500, Nascar's most famous race, escalated the coverage even more.

For all the death-defying scrapes and crashes that harmlessly occurred every weekend, no sport killed its competitors as regularly as Nascar did; Earnhardt's death was the fourth the league had experienced over the last fourteen months, including driver Adam Petty, the grandson of famed racer Richard Petty. Upon inspection, it was determined that Earnhardt's lap belt had dislodged on impact, allowing his head to hit the steering wheel, which resulted in a basal skull fracture. The Simpson company that designed the belt maintained that it had not been properly installed and that its unbuckling was not a technical malfunction.

Later that year, Nascar implemented several safety precautions to prevent further life-threatening crashes. Soft walls, built to absorb the impact of auto accidents, became mandatory at major races, while drivers were now required to wear the "Hand and Neck Support" device, or the HANS device. The device tethered the helmet to the back of the seat, preventing the neck from snapping forward like it had with Earnhardt. While most drivers accepted its implementation, some competitors protested the HANS device, complaining that it was uncomfortable and limited movement.

"Drivers don't understand why they need [the HANS device]," Bob Hubbard, an engineering professor at Michigan State University, told the New York Times in 2003. "And in fact most people won't ever need it. But if they do, and they don't have it, they could be dead."

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