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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Earnhardt’s greatest legacy might be safety innovations his death inspired

Next time you see your favorite driver take an extremely hard hit on the track and escape with little to no injury, look to the sky and thank Dale Earnhardt.

Though it seems like only yesterday, eight years ago NASCAR’s man in black took that ill-fated trip into the wall on the final lap of the Daytona 500, and set up the most sweeping set of technological changes to benefit driver safety in the sport’s history.

The deaths of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper in 2000 were not enough. Their names were not big enough for the sport to care.

But in February 2001, when Earnhardt -- their superstar who had made the sport a phenomenon -- died, it was clear to NASCAR’s bigwigs that something had to be done. The HANS device was required for drivers, to stabilize neck movement during wrecks and prevent basilar skull fractures like the one that killed Earnhardt and others. The journey toward soft walls, which have no doubt saved some lives, was almost immediately begun. Finally, NASCAR began the project that would end up becoming today’s “Car of Tomorrow,” which focuses more on keeping the driver safe than the old car.

The name Earnhardt still inspires many debates to this day, such as whether he was too aggressive and a bully or just a great driver, but there‘s one thing that can‘t be argued about the Intimidator -- Today’s drivers can feel much safer doing their jobs every week because of the changes that have been made in the sport because of how he died.

It should have been enough when Petty, Irwin and Roper died, and maybe Earnhardt would be alive if the changes in safety had come sooner. But that’s all in the past now, and we can’t change what happened.

On this day, I look back with fondness on the great memories I have of seeing Earnhardt compete, and think about how much different this sport is on so many levels because he was a part of it. But in addition to all the great moves he pulled on Sundays, Earnhardt’s safety legacy is at least equally important.

There’s no way to calculate how many drivers are still alive because of the innovations directly inspired by his death.

Field back to normal size for California
The gaggle of cars that made it way to Daytona has been whittled down to a respectable 48 for the California race. That number includes many teams (such as the #71 driven by David Gilliland, the #73 of Mike Garvey, the #37 of Tony Raines, the #51 of David Starr and the #64 of Todd Bodine) who likely won’t run the full season. That’s good news for newly formed teams like Tommy Baldwin Racing and the Jeremy Mayfield and Joe Nemechek self-owned teams. With fields like this, they should be able to run the full season without too many worries on qualifying day.

Special section Thursday
For those of you in Southeast Michigan, The Oakland Press will be publishing a special NASCAR section in Thursday’s edition of the newspaper. It will feature driver capsules, features stories, columns, a full season schedule and more. Look for it on your newsstands Thursday.


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