THE THING IS GRAD-SCHOOL thick, 324 pages, and—should you go online and download it today—its cover, originally presidential blue, is finally the color it should've been when the document was unveiled in that hotel ballroom one decade ago. It was mid-August then; the sorrow was still fresh. How could the so-called Dale Earnhardt Report have come in anything but Intimidator black?
To the audience assembled that day in the Atlanta Hyatt Regency, though, the report intimidated all the same. Analyzing the most monumental auto racing fatality in history had taken six months, and NASCAR opted to preface its investigation's suggestions and conclusions—contained in two volumes of tables, diagrams and digitally constructed models—by summoning two of the authors, both crash-test experts, for an hourlong panel discussion. Faces scrunched in confusion.
What the experts put forth was an unprecedented application of physics, physiology and engineering to racing. It was an analysis and critique of exactly what had transpired when Dale Sr.'s black Chevrolet veered and slammed straight into a barrier during the final lap of the Daytona 500. But, for the great many numbers highlighted then—from the velocity at the time of the crash (158.0 mph) to the number 3 car's trajectory angle (13.6°), all the way down to the size of the hemorrhage on the left side of Earnhardt's scalp (8.0 by 5.5 cm)—it was another digit that has come to symbolize the whole initiative: zero.
It was on Feb. 18, 2001, that the country watched Earnhardt become the fourth driver killed in NASCAR's three major divisions in a span of only 10 months, and the 32nd in the history of those circuits. Now, 10 years and precisely zero deaths later, an entirely new question emerges: How did he become the last?
THE NASCAR RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT CENTER, IN CONCORD, N.C., is an unassuming, 61,000-square-foot white building pulled out of a crash-test expert's wildest imagination. Garrisoned atop a plot of land bought in February 2002—one year to the month after Earnhardt's death—the $10 million complex houses the sport's safety brain trust. Before the center's construction, approximately four people ("Definitely less than 10," one exec estimates) worked in NASCAR R&D. Now? There's an annual budget in the millions and a dedicated staff of 54, from engineers to inspectors to regulations writers. "Driver safety is a whole career path for people that didn't exist 15 years ago," says Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition. "The shock from that crash hardly ever wore off."
It is an afternoon in late September, and three top NASCAR R&D officials—Mike Fisher, managing director of R&D; and two members of his staff, Tom Gideon, director of safety; and Brett Bodine, director of competition—have gathered with Pemberton inside a cool boardroom at the center to meet with a reporter. "Dale Sr.'s death was a watershed moment for the whole racing industry," Gideon affirms. "There had been things done for safety up until that point, but after that we turned up the jets. We reached out to outside experts." That summer NASCAR execs contacted John Melvin, a former safety engineer for General Motors, and the aforementioned two crash-test experts, Dean L. Sicking, a Nebraska engineering professor, and James H. Raddin, an MIT-educated authority on accident-causation analysis. The conversation started and has yet to stop.
Consider: Over the first 53 years of NASCAR's history, from 1948 to 2000, 32 safety initiatives had been implemented. In the last 10 years alone, following Earnhardt's death, there have been 24. In 2010, likewise, a rule book that started off in 1948 with four pages now weighs in at 153. What began as the sport of moonshine-runners has become military grade—almost literally. In April the R&D Center hosted inquiring U.S. Army safety engineers. "We now have an extremely educated racing company," Fisher says. "Everybody's dialed in. We pay attention to detail that once wouldn't have warranted a second glance."
What was safety inspection like before Black Sunday (as Earnhardt's passing at Daytona came to be known)? "It basically amounted to checking to make sure the dates on the belts were right and that you had big enough washers on the bolts holding the seat in," admits Bodine, a former driver. Now each national series has two dedicated inspectors who go over every piece of safety equipment in every car to make sure it meets the specs. They also install a black box of a crash recorder to be removed postrace. If an accident happens, a detailed record is created and entered into R&D's central database to see if any engineering changes ought to be considered. There are now more than 7,000 entries.
All of it led to a conspicuous shift in culture. Sure, a driver's car is still his "office," as Kurt Busch says: You hate when other people come in and rearrange the furniture. But drivers, more than ever, are open to tolerating new improvements. The tension between the concerns of safety and competition has noticeably shifted toward the former. "The front third and the rear third of the car, competition can have that," Pemberton says. "But the middle third is for the protection of our drivers. And so that's highly regulated. You could never have said that before. It was all about competition."
WHY SUCH A RADICAL, SWEEPING change in perspective? Simple: Dale Sr. wasn't merely a driver. "He was Superman," says Steve Hmiel, director of competition at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. In 1998 Hmiel began working for Earnhardt at the premerger Dale Earnhardt, Inc. "When he died the rest of the world went, Man, I'm not even Superman," he says. "Drivers are like football players. You can't get anyone to talk about safety until something of this magnitude happens. If they sat around and thought about their own mortality, they probably wouldn't be really good race car drivers. But Dale was Dale. And once he went away they realized, I can get destroyed."