Earnhardt Jr. on safety: 'It was trial and error for a long time'

Jim Utter, The Charlotte Observer

NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt says he didn't think much about safety early in his career. He basically got in the car and drove.

That changed after the death of his father, seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt, in a last-lap wreck in the 2001 Daytona 500.

In a nearly 25-minute, one-on-one interview Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Earnhardt Jr. spoke candidly about safety and his sport — and why improvements didn't come fast enough before his father's death.

"A lot of it was ignorance." he said. "We had open-face helmets and no head restraints and no headrests, and how we routed our (seat) belts through the seats were probably improper."

All of that changed after that fateful day at Daytona.

"You'd love to have had it to start off in 1950 with the safest thing you have," he said, "but I think it was trial and error for a long time."

For Earnhardt Jr. and the sanctioning body, that has changed.

"Fifteen years ago you're trying to be tough," he said. "Now we see the consequences for being bullheaded or ignorant are pretty severe.

"Yeah, it makes you more proactive instantly."

That needs to continue, he said, particularly on fan safety. He called injuries to fans at recent NASCAR events "unacceptable."

"That can't be the trend," he said. "No way."

Excerpts from Friday's discussion, edited for brevity and clarity:

Q. With serious accidents you've experienced, and with your dad's accident, how have those shaped your view on safety?

A. I think as a driver you think about the specifics. Why did I get a concussion? How can what's in the car help me in the future?

A lot of things came out of dad's accident as far as 'soft' walls, and head and neck restraints. We changed the way we do our seat belts, a lot. And NASCAR has added more seat belts. The roll cages have changed quite a bit to protect us in rollovers.

So, all of those things give me a sense of safety and give me a confidence in my car and the confidence to kind of go out there and shake off all the things that happened in the past.

I feel like I'm in a better position today to survive things like that.

Q. Have your views on safety evolved over time?

A. My views? Yeah. Absolutely.

I look at pictures of my old late-model car that I used to race that didn't have a headrest in there. You thought that you were a sissy if you had a headrest. The headrest was only thought of to hold a guy that had a weak neck; if you had a headrest you were a baby.

I didn't put any effort or any thought into making things better or how does stuff work and what would happen in this situation. Then we have these accidents where guys are injured or even killed, and we learn from those accidents.

You see what happened and you realize why it happened and how easily it could have been prevented, and that's when you start taking things a lot more seriously.

When I drove the (Busch series) car in 1998, I just got in and buckled up. Now when I look at my car, I certainly am more knowledgeable about what's safer. Like these huge headrests in the car now.

We went from nothing to this huge monstrosity thing. You've got 4 inches of padding on one side and I look at that headrest and I think, 'Is the density of the foam where we need to be?' You're thinking, 'If this isn't the best, how can this be better?'

We came a long way, but we haven't solved all of our issues, so what's next?

Q. On some of the safety things today, your dad would not have been a fan. Do you think the outlook of the drivers has changed?

A. I don't really know exactly what the balance was back then. But I know there's more guys today who would rather go slower to be safer than there probably were back then.

We used to never say a word about slowing the cars down, because fans don't want to hear that we're slowing the cars down. It was considered not being macho or a tough driver, not being fierce.

Q. NASCAR has put a lot of effort into safety, but at smaller across the country they don't have the same safety advances, for various reasons. As someone who works with up-and-coming drivers, do you see awareness on their part of the safety options available?

A. They probably individually don't have the self awareness that you might have in this garage just because there don't have the same resources as are available to us here.

One good thing I guess is you do see is some of the late-model guys who are building these cars that mimic what they see (in NASCAR). They emulate whatever they see in (our) garages.

When they look at a Cup car, they see how seriously we take safety considering what the cockpit was like 10 years ago. They see that we take it pretty seriously, and they're watching TV when these accidents are happening.

Q. Daytona has seen injuries to race fans three times since February 2012. Is that acceptable?

A. No, absolutely not. It's not OK, and I hope the response isn't just put the fence back up.

I hope that somebody is trying to come up with an idea of a barrier that's better than what we've got.

If a car that heavy and going that rate of speed gets into whatever they put there, it's going to destroy it. Is there an option that puts the fans in a better situation? Is it more than one layer? Is there a fence and then another fence? What is it that can sort of help us avoid this situation again?

I'm sure they're trying to come up with some better plans because it's not OK, and they obviously don't want that to become the norm.

Q. Is there any reason racing at Daytona and Talladega shouldn't remain a part of NASCAR racing?

A. Absolutely none. They will always be a part of it even if they have to make some major changes to the speed of the cars or whatever they've got to do, we're always going to be racing there.

The facilities are too engrained in the sport and the series. It's just too attached, both from a history standpoint (and) from a financial standpoint.

I don't see how you can just cut that out of it altogether. NASCAR would change or alter the racing significantly before they ever quit racing there.

If that's the length they have to go, that's what they'll do for sure before they ever just quit.