DAYTONA BEACH -- Dale Earnhardt was considered the meanest, toughest racer in the history of motorsports, but it appears he died Sunday the same way many of his peers perished: from massive head injuries resulting from a head-on collision with a concrete wall.
Earnhardt, the seven-time Winston Cup champion and one of the most charismatic stars in NASCAR history, is thought to have died instantly Sunday on a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500. He had to be cut from his car after ramming into the wall at about 180 mph on the final turn of the race.
At least one participant in Sunday's race said the tragedy will cause drivers to reconsider a safety device that might have prevented Earnhardt's death.
"We're going to have to take a look at some of the safety issues," said Todd Parrot, the crew chief for Dale Jarrett. "My driver tested the HANS [head and neck safety] device over the summer, and he will not get in the car without it now. If Dale [Earnhardt] had that on, we'd probably be looking at a different situation."
Although an autopsy won't be performed until today, Earnhardt's death likely resulted from the same type of injuries that killed three NASCAR drivers last year, according to Dr. Steve Bohannon, an emergency physician who tried to revive Earnhardt on Sunday. Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper died last year from injuries resulting from violent head movement -- injuries the HANS is designed to prevent. The HANS was designed to lessen the enormous G-force stresses on the most vulnerable parts of the body: the neck and base of the skull. Violent head movement apparently killed all four drivers.
"My speculation as an emergency physician would be head injuries, particularly at the base of the skull, ended his life," said Bohannon, the medical services director at Daytona International Speedway. "He was unconscious and unresponsive from the time of the first paramedic's arrival at the scene and remained that way throughout.
"He had blood in his ears and blood in his airway that we see with basalar skull fractures."
Basalar skull fracture was the specific cause of death listed on the death certificates of Petty and Irwin.
Asked if the HANS device would have saved Earnhardt's life, Bohannon said: "I really don't know if that would have or not. That would be pure speculation at this point, not knowing the exact cause of death."
Earnhardt's death comes in the wake of a six-month investigation by the Orlando Sentinel that showed basal skull fractures and similar injuries caused by violent head movement have been the most common cause of death among race drivers during the past 10 years -- the same time span in which the HANS has scientifically proven to prevent just such injuries.
Many drivers say the HANS is bulky and uncomfortable. Only seven competitors in Sunday's 43-car field wore the device.
In the aftermath, there undoubtedly will be questions whether Earnhardt's death could have been prevented if NASCAR had moved quicker to implement two safety breakthroughs: the head-restraint device and "soft wall" technology that would greatly lessen the impact of cars hitting concrete.
"Unfortunately, that may be a positive result from this," John Melvin, a renowned safety expert who has worked with several NASCAR teams, said from his Michigan home Sunday night. "You have to have this kind of impetus to cause the drivers to work a little harder to make this work."
NASCAR President Mike Helton didn't comment on what his organization might do to increase safety measures.
"We don't know a lot right now," Helton told reporters. "We don't know enough to answer all your questions."
Most drivers were unavailable when Earnhardt's death was confirmed, but they were clearly upset with some of the rule changes NASCAR made to bunch up the cars and make the Daytona 500 more exciting. Earnhardt's crash was the second serious incident of the day. The first one was a more spectacular 19-car crackup that sent Tony Stewart to the hospital with a concussion.
Aerodynamic changes to cars, made to create tight racing conditions, came in response to criticism at last year's 500, which was called one of the most boring in the proud history of NASCAR's showcase event.
Ironically, Earnhardt was one of the biggest critics of last year's race, saying afterward that NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. was "probably turning over in his grave."
"I don't think this is what he [Earnhardt] had in mind," Dale Jarrett said of the racing conditions Sunday. "I'm sorry, but that's not racing."