Ever since the dark suicidal days of my mid-20s, I’ve been fascinated by the moment of death. What’s it like in that final moment before we leave this mortal coil: awful agony or sweet release? That may strike you as weird, even pathological, but I suspect I’m not the only one who ponders the more personal side of our mortality. Why else would you shell out good money to see Scream or Hannibal or any number of movies whose climax is the death of a character with whom you in some way identify? You can call it the cathartic value of drama, but what you’re seeking is a foretaste of inevitable things to come.
I’ve had ample opportunity to ponder the mysterious instant of death these past few months, ever since the last lap of the Daytona 500 when Dale Earnhardt took what has been called “that awful right turn.” Now comes NASCAR’s controversial report on the crash.
The 324-page document dissects in minute, moment-by-moment detail the curious collision of circumstances that snapped the life out of my favorite driver. Earnhardt insisted on wearing an open-face helmet rather than the supposedly safer full-face version. His shoulder harness, apparently not installed according to the manufacturer’s specifications, shredded under the tremendous pressure of impact and allowed his body to fly farther forward than it would have otherwise. But the coup de grace was a matter of sheer timing, of being in the wrong place at precisely the wrong time: Earnhardt’s racecar bumped against another on its way to the retaining wall, twisting his torso, head and helmet to the right and exposing his neck and jaw to the brunt force of the collapsible steering wheel. If that didn’t finish him off, the whiplash as the #3 machine rebounded off the wall certainly did.
The absence of even one of these factors might have meant Earnhardt would be racing this weekend, bruised but unbowed. The report implies that it was the combination rather than any single element of the crash that brought about his death. Yet the seatbelt maker, Simpson Performance Products, Inc., has cried foul against NASCAR and its official report for placing too much blame on the shredded harness. Simpson claims that if it had been installed properly, the belt would have done what it was supposed to do. This disagreement may well wind up in the courts, but one thing is certain from the get-go: The report, which reads like it’s been gone over with a rather pricey lawyer’s fine-tooth comb, was presented to the media as if to a jury, so you can bet that in addition to all their justifiable concerns for driver safety, NASCAR is taking every conceivable step to cover its billion-dollar ass.
The only real surprise in the report on the Earnhardt tragedy is that NASCAR recommended but did not require its drivers to wear what is called the HANS device, a restraint system built to hold the head and shoulders in place during an accident and thus lessen the possibility of impact and whiplash. The top brass knows how stubborn its foot soldiers can be, and before the crash at Daytona only a few wore the device. Ironically, Earnhardt never hid his disdain for such “sissy stuff,” and it is a measure of how hard his death struck his peers that in a recent race 41 of the 43 drivers strapped themselves into the HANS.
If you’ve ever been involved in an automobile accident, you may know that uncanny sense of time decelerating and everything flowing by like a slow-motion instant replay. I can’t help wondering what Earnhardt was thinking in those last sad moments, but knowing his penchant for stubborn fearlessness, I suspect it went something like, “Aw hell, here we go again. Another smashed car and unfinished race.” Ultimately, there’s no way to know his final thoughts, any more than we’ll ever figure out who was really responsible for his death: the maker of the shoulder harness, the men who installed it, the sport that sanctions such daredevil antics or those of us who pay to flirt vicariously with death. Anyone who follows racing will tell you Earnhardt walked, limped or was carried away from much deadlier-looking wrecks, but in the final analysis, traveling more than of 150 mph, this irresistible force finally met an immovable object.