Why Was Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s Crash Fatal?

Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s crash was fatal because he sustained a basilar skull fracture and a severe brain injury. The crash did not appear to be as serious as it was, but the legendary driver’s unstabilized head and neck did not withstand such rapid deceleration. The Orlando Sentinel reveals that Earnhardt also broke several ribs, his sternum and one ankle.

At the time of Dale Earnhardt, Sr.’s fatal crash, drivers were allowed to wear an optional head, neck and shoulder stabilizer called a HANS device. The devices were rigid frames that slipped over the driver’s head, neck and shoulders and were fastened to the car’s headrest. HANS devices prevent dangerous whiplash injuries such as basilar skull fractures. According to USA Today, Earnhardt did not race with a HANS device because he found it distracting and uncomfortable. In the aftermath of Earnhardt’s death, NASCAR added the HANS device to its list of mandatory driver safety equipment.

Cynthia Blank Reid, a registered nurse and columnist for the Advanced Healthcare Network for Nurses, explains that Earnhardt was also the only NASCAR driver to insist on wearing an open helmet, despite the clearly superior face and neck protection offered by closed helmets. Earnhardt’s insistence on comfort was the source of another controversy surrounding his death. Inspection of his wrecked vehicle revealed modified safety belts that met NASCAR standards but not safety guidelines published by the manufacturer. The role the modified belts played in Earnhardt’s demise remains a matter of heated debate.