“What If?” Part I: What If Dale Earnhardt Had Not Died?

David DubczakContributor IJanuary 7, 2010

The replay is infamous.

The scene now permanently etched into the memories of NASCAR fans young and old from coast to coast. NASCAR President Mike Helton’s words, “We’ve lost Dale Earnhardt” still seem eerie nine years later.

February 18th, 2001 was the day Earnhardt went from being a star to a legend when he died in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500 – NASCAR’s biggest race at a track he had mastered.

In the next few weeks, The Racing Tool will be exploring some of NASCAR’s “What If’s?” beginning with the death of Earnhardt and wondering what would be different if The Intimidator was still around.

The biggest result to come out of his death was an advance in safety. The head restraints, seat designs, helmet designs, SAFER barrier, and eventually the COT were advances all prompted by the death of NASCAR’s biggest star in order to prevent it from happening to someone else.

Without Earnhardt’s untimely demise, would these advances still have happened?

In part, yes.

First of all, the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barrier began development at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1998. While it was sponsored by the Indy Racing League and not NASCAR, track owners across the country would have eventually seen the sense in installing them, though maybe not quite as rapidly as they actually did.

The trickier part to predict would be the head restraints and the COT. Let’s start with the head restraints.

Before Earnhardt’s death, a few drivers used a head restraint such as the Head and Neck Support (HANS) device.

However, using an old fashioned low-backed seat sans HANS device and an open-faced helmet were symbols of machismo – drivers trying to show how tough they were since this was NASCAR after all, not the girly-men Indy Racing League. Drivers taking these safety precautions were largely chided.

The Car of Tomorrow (COT) was first track-tested in 2005, first raced in 2007, and adopted full-time in 2008 and was a project directly related to overhauling the old car in the name of safety.

It had a wider and taller greenhouse (or cockpit), repositioned fuel and oil lines to prevent fires getting to the driver, foam in the door panels, and moved the driver's seat closer to the center, all in an attempt to keep the impact energy away from the driver.

So, would these advances have taken place as fast, if at all, without the death of Dale Earnhardt?

Eventually, yes, because someone else would have died.

In the year prior to 2001, NASCAR lost three up-and-coming stars: Truck Series driver Tony Roper, Nationwide Series and soon-to-be Cup Rookie Adam Petty, and Cup Series driver Kenny Irwin.

All three drivers died in a similar impact and a similar injury to Earnhardt: a basilar skull fracture.

The 2000 season took three drivers from us. The first race of the 2001 season took Earnhardt. Who was next?

The death of three relatively little-known drivers wasn’t enough to have a big push for safety. It took the death of Earnhardt.

If not him, it would have been someone else.

Dale Jarrett? Rusty Wallace? Ricky Rudd? Bill Elliott? All four were popular veterans known for their old-school antics – and driver safety equipment – much like Earnhardt.

Even with a HANS device, driver Jerry Nadeau suffered a career-ending injury at Richmond in 2003. Had it not been for that HANS device, Nadeau may have been the next one to be taken from us.

These safety advances would have happened eventually. Fortunately, no driver in NASCAR’s top three national series has died since that fateful February day in 2001.

Now, aside from safety…

In 2010, Earnhardt would almost certainly be retired. He died a month short of his 50th birthday. What might he be doing today?

He would still be running his team, Dale Earnhardt Inc., and it might still be a powerhouse.

He might even be broadcasting – Darrell Waltrip is pretty much a lock with FOX, but Earnhardt’s personality was a near perfect fit for a broadcasting position, perhaps with ESPN or TNT.

And, in 2010, though he might have been retired, Earnhardt would almost certainly still be the sport’s leading man.