EDITOR’S NOTE: In the first seven months of the year 2000, Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin died as the result of injuries they sustained in accidents at New Hampshire. Those tragedies – as well as Tony Roper’s fatal mishap at Texas barely a month after the publication of this story – led to an intense debate over safety.
In an almost unprecedented move, none other than Dale Earnhardt had four of the sport’s most prominent writers gathered for an impromptu press conference at Richmond in the Richard Childress Racing transporter. These extraordinary stories by Winston Cup Scene Executive Editor Tom Jensen are the result of that interview.
Five months later, Earnhardt would himself be gone.
BY TOM JENSEN
Of all the opinions floating around about running restrictor plates at New Hampshire International Speedway, the most pointed by far came from seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt.
Prior to the start of practice at Richmond International Raceway Sept. 8, Earnhardt took the unusual step of inviting four journalists into the back of his team hauler for a 75-minute venting of his frustrations.
While Earnhardt was careful to credit NASCAR for slowing the = cars at New Hampshire – “they had to do something,” he noted several times - he was not happy with the way it transpired and was disgusted with some of his fellow drivers.
When Dave Marcis walked into Earnhardt’s transporter and was told of the mandated restrictor plates, he said, “That’s ridiculous. They’re going to have a worse mess on their damn hands with that plate than they are without it.”
“Got to do something, all those $#+*$# whining drivers talking about it’s an unsafe race track,” Earnhardt told Marcis. Earnhardt was so incensed that he spoke for about 20 minutes on the subject before the first question was asked.
“I think the same thing about restrictor plates I’ve always thought about restrictor plates: It’s not racing,” he said. “Racing restrictor plates anywhere, or restricted shock rules, or restrictor-plate racing, any of it, it’s not racing. Racing is going out there and trying to be the fastest car on the race track.”
Earnhardt also defended concrete walls as a way to protect race fans.
“I started racing, going to races when I was a kid, watching my daddy race. He raced at some damn race tracks that were
dangerous, that if you wrecked, you went head-on into the ... fence post and stuff would drive through your car,” he said, “I mean I’ve seen it all. ... I’ve seen a train rail track come through the pits in Columbia, S.C., and cut a man’s legs off. The car hit and come spinning through the pits and cut the man’s legs off, cut him down like a toothpick.”
But, says Earnhardt, danger is a part of racing.
“It’s not ... a totally safe situation anywhere you race,” he said. “I accepted that when I came into racing. The walls are there and the fences are there to protect the race fans. We used to have guard rails, used to have wood boards, we used to have all kind of fences and they came to cement walls, which protect race fans the best. And our cars don’t go through the cement walls.”
Got to do something, all those $#+*$# whining drivers talking about it’s an unsafe race track – Dale Earnhardt
As unhappy as he was. Earnhardt saved his most stern words for his fellow competitors.
“I applaud ‘em for doing something, but I think it’s the wrong thing to do,” he said of NASCAR. “Our speeds are still going to be the same as ... probably Adam Petty’s was.
“There were a lot of issues, a lot of things we can do. The biggest thing that’s happening is that people are stirring this issue up more and more instead of working on the issue and working with NASCAR and working together and being positive about it. There’s too much negativity about it. It’s in turn creating a big rift, and in turn, when there’s a big rift, then you guys are going to write more about it.
“And it blows things maybe the wrong way - not out of proportion, because it is an important subject. It’s not something that we should turn our back on or ignore, but it’s a fact, we have a racing environment, we race on race tracks.”
Earnhardt also defended NHIS owner Bob Bahre, saying the track where Petty and Kenny Irwin were killed wasn’t the problem.
“Bob Bahre, for one, the promoter, is one of the greatest promoters we have in racing,” Earnhardt said. “The most caring person there is, probably, in racing. He takes care of guys that don’t make the race. He writes them a check. He takes care of guys that have trouble in races. He tries to do the best always - anything you need, anything you ask for, the man’s tried to give it to ‘em. And I know the man would not want to hurt or try to do anything wrong to anybody - any one driver or any one person.”
Helmet Design An Issue, Too
While Dale Earnhardt was extremely outspoken about his dislike for restrictor-plate racing during an unusual meeting with the media Sept. 8 at Richmond International Raceway, he also raised another safety issue – helmet design.
Most Winston Cup drivers favor so-called “full-face” helmets that cover the entire head and are open only around the eyes and nose, while Earnhardt and a few others use open-face helmets. And Earnhardt says he believes the design he wears is safer.
“I’m not an expert and I’m not saying I’m right or wrong – but what about the helmets?” Earnhardt asked while discussing the crashes that killed Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty at New Hampshire International Speedway.
“Did the helmets have anything to do with them guys pulling their brain stems apart? I hit the wall pretty hard in my life and I’ve done OK with that situation. Is there a safety issue there? Is there something that needs to be tested? And NASCAR is testing things like that, looking at things like that. So there’s a lot of issues, there’s a lot of things we can all talk about to make things better.”
Earnhardt contends that full-face helmets are more dangerous than open ones, because in the event of a head-on crash, the front of a full-face helmet can strike the driver’s chest, snap back and cause severe injuries.
It’s like somebody puts a noose around your ... neck and throws you off the ... gallows. If you’re riding a motorcycle, you’re probably safer with a full-face helmet on. But not if he hits a wall wide open ... it’s going to break his ... head off his shoulders. – Dale Earnhardt
While in his transporter on the morning of Sept. 8, Earnhardt and fellow driver Dave Marcis expounded on the helmet issue.
“Why don’t you wear a full-face helmet?” Earnhardt asked Marcis.
“Because they’re not safe,” Marcis responded.
“Now I didn’t say that. Why aren’t they safe?” Earnhardt continued.
“Because you slam your face into them,” Marcis said. “And what does it do to the back of your neck when you hit?” Earnhardt asked.
“You break it. Right here," Marcis said, pointing to the base of his neck. “That leverage point is there and your head keeps going. Something’s gotta bust back there.”
“It’s like somebody puts a noose around your ... neck and throws you off the ... gallows,” Earnhardt said. “If you’re riding a motorcycle, you’re probably safer with a full-face helmet on. But not if he hits a wall wide open ... it’s going to break his ... head off his shoulders.”
Earnhardt said his open-faced helmet saved his life during a crash at Daytona in 1986.
“I hit the ... wall at Daytona ... hit the wall head on. Climbed out of the ... race car, had the breath knocked out of me bad. My chin was bleeding. You know why my chin was bleeding? Cause I cut it on my buckle. … If I’d had a full-face helmet on, it would have pulled my ... brain stem out,” he said.
Drivers on the Winston Cup circuit began exchanging their open faced helmets for full-faced ones in the late 1980s.
The Scene Vault Featured Stories bring racing history to life. Read the stories that made Scene the racing news leader for more then three decades.