Ed Hinton, Orlando Sentinel
February 20, 2001
DAYTONA BEACH -- It was Earnhardt, guys. It really was. Not some rookie or also-ran. Earnhardt. Your leader.
Are you clear on that now? Are there any more questions?
Apparently there are.
Half of you, at best, will be wearing the life-saving HANS device Sunday at Rockingham, N.C.
And so I've got to ask:
Who among you is next, guys?
There is no if.
There is only who and where and when.
Everywhere Earnhardt went, you all followed.
If he pulled out of the drafting line at Talladega, you all fell in behind him and made a new drafting line.
If he didn't like Geoffrey Bodine, you didn't like Geoffrey Bodine.
If he didn't like the HANS device, you didn't like it, either.
If he thought safety science was for sissies, you thought safety science was for sissies.
There is no place else to follow him now, guys.
Except the grave.
Was Sunday really just his time? Meant to be? Written in the book, as you guys say?
Would Sunday have been his time had he been wearing a HANS? Or May 12 Adam Petty's? Or July 7 Kenny Irwin's? Or Oct. 14 Tony Roper's?
That's a lot of meant-to-be, guys.
Four drivers dead of violent head movement -- so preventable with the HANS -- in barely nine months?
Those have ceased to be freak accidents, guys. They've become a pattern.
You NASCAR drivers are dying at a cataclysmic pace unseen since the terrible 1950s and '60s when Formula One and Indy car racing were the deadliest sports on earth.
Now it's you, NASCAR. You are the deadliest game on the planet.
Formula One and Indy cars are moving forward wonderfully -- no one died in them last year.
Four in nine months, of almost the same preventable injuries.
And so you stand alone under the scrutiny of civilization.
Earnhardt put you there.
He is your Ayrton Senna.
You remember Senna.
He was the other guy who simply could not die in a race car. He was just too good at it -- like Earnhardt.
And after Senna died, in 1994, I sat in the paddock in Monaco one Grand Prix morning with Bernie Ecclestone, czar of Formula One, and the ruthless little Englishman was as somber as I've ever seen him. The judgment of civilization was raining down on him.
"We thought we walked on water," he said. "And now someone's drowned."
And then he raised his weary head and said to me, with enormous resolve, "The one message we must give out to the world is that we are not people who don't care." And no one has died in Grand Prix racing since Senna. Formula One saw to that, went into a techno-medical blitzkrieg against death, and won.
That must be your message now, NASCAR.
But you do not see that yet. You remain an anachronism, locked in a simpler past, rife with rugged individualism as a globally interdependent world spins 'round and 'round you.
You are bootstraps Americans, proud of that -- you care little for book-learnin', science, engineers, formulas, physicians. Give you a socket wrench and you can conquer the world, make the cars go fast, make them slow, make them do your will, make them safe (you surely thought).
And Lord knows Earnhardt was the quintessence of you all.
But he is dead now. Don't you see? Dead.
And so is your shade-tree engineering, your seat-of-the-pants science.
You cannot go on this way.
Even your chairman, Bill France, himself struggling back from cancer, admitted Monday, "This is a tough period in NASCAR's history. I can't think of a time that's been more tough."
Four dead in nine months. And the latest one is your Senna, your guy who could not die in a race car -- Dale By God Earnhardt, the biggest, baddest star, the most titanic walking mass of charisma NASCAR ever had, and maybe ever will.
Bill France said "someone will come along" to fill the void, as the voids of yore were filled when Fireball Roberts died, and Little Joe Weatherly.
Times are different now, Bill. Vastly different.
Jim France, Bill's younger brother, said Monday, "I credit Dale with saving my brother's life."
When Bill was down with cancer, down and out of heart, Dale Earnhardt flew down in his Learjet and roused the human spirit again.
Don't let him haunt you now, Bill.
Don't leave it so that everywhere you go, for the rest of your life -- and everywhere Jim goes, and your son Brian goes, and your daughter Lesa goes -- the questions will be unrelenting, about four deaths for the same unnecessary reason in the France empire in less than a year.
Give out the message that you are not people who don't care.
I know you do. I've known you all for nearly 27 years, and walked your race tracks and pit roads and garages all those years. I am not some newcomer, criticizing from afar.
I understand that you don't understand what is happening to you. You don't see why you cannot keep your silence, your secrecy, with whatever you are doing or not doing with regard to safety research and development.
Why won't the world leave you alone, let you grieve in peace? Because the world has changed so -- spun away from you.
Civilization largely ignored you for so long -- hick, "redneck," backwoods, downhome, boondocks bloodsport.
But you got what you wished for. Mainstream America has taken notice, network television and all. And you are coming under the scrutiny not only of broader America, but broader civilization.
Society could admire your daring in your quaint years. But if your dying keeps on coming, so relentlessly, civilization will condemn the madness.
Profits are running in the hundreds of millions, sponsorships over a billion.
Give some of that to the right people, and do it openly. Tell the world. Invite the cameras. Show you care.
Dr. John Melvin, the brilliant bio-mechanical engineer, has labored in obscurity for auto racing safety for the better part of 30 years -- first at the University of Michigan, then at General Motors, now at Wayne State University, where he is the guru of all the world's racing safety revolution.
Network television is beating down the door of Dr. Robert Hubbard, inventor of the HANS, at Michigan State University. He has taught in both the medical and engineering schools there. He is no fly-by-night inventor. He knows what he is doing.
Will you let the network cameras and the national publications see those innovators alone -- without you there?
You held a huge news conference Monday at Daytona International Speedway, and you showed your sadness and spoke kind words. But you still evaded issues, and left an appalling sense of status quo.
You cannot go on this way.