Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Somethin' I really don't understand

Ok, now this is going to be an odd one for me; though I suspect many of my readers have knowledge and an opinion on this subject.

I am an engineer by training; in particular an aerospace engineer, which is at turns a mechanical engineer, a physicist, a materials scientist, an aerodynamicist, and an artist all rolled up into one.

I was at one time a certified EMT basic, and a certified nurses assistant in the state of Arizona.

Further, I have to say I'm a damn good engineer; and I know my physics, my materials science, my anatomy, and a fair bit about trauma and emergency medicine.

So could somebody please explain to me why Dale Earnhardt is dead?

Now let me just say, I'm not a NASCAR fan, nor a member of the cult of number 3. I do however appreciate the skill, and stamina required to drive at 200 miles per hour in a pack of 40 other cars for 3 hours. I also appreciate the skill and hard work necessary to get an iron block, naturally aspirated, 358 cubic inch engine to produce 850 horsepower while running at 9000 RPM reliably for that three hours.

Others may denigrate NASCAR as low tech, low skill racing; but as an engineer, an automotive enthusiast, an amateur mechanic, and as someone who has raced as an amateur (autocross, ice racing, and amateur rally), I'm not one of them.

What I am, is mystified, that in 8 years of intense scrutiny, we still don't have what I would call a satisfactory answer as to why Dale Earnhardt died.

I've seen the video, I've seen the documentaries and the "investigations" on every TV show. I've seen all the reconstructions. I've read all the reports.

Not one of them has shown me any convincing proof that this crash:

Should have resulted in the death of that man.

Unless Earnhardts safety equipment was either defective (and I don't believe Simpson made bad gear) or he was wearing it improperly (as many have suggested, but the accident reports concluded he was not); I see no reason for him to have died.

I see no severe and sudden g-loading (in comparison to hundreds of other similar, and worse crashes) that would cause his neck and basal skull injuries (which were ruled as his cause of death) without a HANS device. I see no significant telescoping of the frame of his vehicle or cockpit intrusion. Primarily I see non-impact side loading, and relatively minor (if any impact at 150+mph can be called minor) g loading.

If you look at Earnhardts injuries, they suggest that he was moving freely in the cockpit; with 8 broken ribs on his left side (the vehicle did not suffer any substantial left side impacts), a broken left ankle, a broken sternum, and abrasions and contusions from his harness.

... but a Nascar driver is in a very different driving position than you or I are driving in our cars; approximately 8" closer to the centerline of the vehicle; and his restraints (if worn properly and not malfunctioning) should have prevented such injuries from happening

The only way I could understand these injuries, is if he was free in the cockpit, and slammed against the left side door of the vehicle; but the accident report contradicts this possibility.

Now I admit, the human body is a strange and at times frighteningly weak thing. There are times where we will survive amazing injuries, and other times when something relatively minor does devastating damage.

The thing is, I've seen hundreds of other far more severe crashes, that have caused significantly less, and less severe injury than the Earnhardt crash. Also, in all cases I know of with injuries as severe as Earnhardts (and sadly, basal fractures are not uncommon in motorsports. Heads are not well supported, and helmets are heavy), the crashes in question were more severe, or had specific dynamics which would clearly cause the injuries in question.

There is a theory which fits the evidence:

Given Earnhardts injuries, the only thing that makes sense is that he was moving forward and left. If he had properly fastened, properly mounted, functional restraints AS THE REPORTS STATE, that should not have happened.

If that was the case, I understand perfectly why he had the spine/skull injury that killed him. Rather than being properly restrained, his body was moving down, forward, and left at a high rate of speed (left from when his car snapped right, and forward and down from when he hit the wall), and when he snapped to the end of his range of motion (either against loose restraints, or the internal structural members of the vehicle - no-one outside the investigative team has seen the photos so we can't be sure which), his helmet detached the base of his skull from his spinal column.

That absolutely makes sense. It fits the evidence. It fits the physics. It fits the medicine.

And NASCAR swears up and down that it isn't what happened.

So why did Earnhardt die? Is there something I'm missing? Is someone lying?

Am I wrong here?