How did this guy die?

I saw on the news this morning a film clip of a NASCAR race where one of the top drivers was killed. I’m no expert in these matters but the crash looked puny. The car is racing straight ahead then slews off to one side and stops. Shortly after there was another accident, far more spectacular, where noone was killed. I’ve seen these cars on TV before and they look as well kitted out as F1 race cars with regards safety. Did I just see the crash from a bad angle or was it some freak accident? Maybe its a morbid question but I still think the crash didn’t look all that bad really.

I think the difference is that the car involved in the fatal accident virtually stopped after it hit the wall. Previously it had been going 180 miles per hour. That’s one hell of a lot of deceleration. In contrast, the spinning flying car never really stopped, so the forces involved were much less.

What I heard on two news broadcasts is that this wonderful man died of massive head injuries as a result of ramming into a cement wall at 140+ mph. Both reports went on to say that the sport has been looking into more effective safety equipment - some which might have saved this man’s life if he used the “state-of-art” head protectors.

Of course, some accidents and fatalities will happen no matter what you use. I was horrified to see what my daughter’s scooter helmet looked like after I ran over it with my nonSUV vehicle. I was tempted to shoot the scooter right then and there. You can’t make life risk free … especially when you undertake those with high risk.

Ouch :eek:
That is one hell of a smash. I’d forgotten my grammar school physics.

Earnhardt is the fourth death in NASCAR in the last year, and sadly all four of the drivers died in the exact same manner (Kenny Irwin, Adam Petty, and Tony Roper, who died racing in the NASCAR Truck series). When he hit the wall his head was thrown forward while the rest of his body was stopped by the seat belt. The result of this was that his skull was ripped from his spine, resulting in nearly instantaneous death. Tony Stewart was protected by the roll cage in his tumbling accident, but the strongest roll cage in the world wouldn’t have changed the deadliness of Earnhardt’s crash since the car hit the wall at nearly 90 degrees.

Whether or not he could have been saved by the HANS device is total specualtion, but I’d like to think that NASCAR’s losing its biggest name ever will get them to realize that maybe they need to rethink their stubborness to refuse to force drivers to wear it.

I’d like to throw in that AFAIK, the recent fatals in NASCAR have all involved high-speed impact with the walls bordering the track.

For the past couple of years, various racing bodies, including NASCAR been evaluating several proposed systems that would provide replaceable, impact-absorbing padding for these walls. One system, which uses styrofoam blocks, has been tried under race conditions, but proved problematic because it greatly increased the time needed to clean up the track after an accident. Another system, involving a thin metal housing backed by rubber blocks, is less likely to spew debris everywhere, but apparently some track owners have objected to the expense.

I have a feeling that Earnhardt’s accident is likely to increase momentum towards early adoption of one of these measures.

Don’t have a link handy for the above, but I’ll see if I can find one.

As promised, here is a link concerning ‘soft walls’ technology:

Earnhardt himself was quoted not long ago as saying, “I’d rather they spend 20 minutes cleaning up styrofoam from the wall than cleaning me up from the wall.” Creepy, huh?

He went from 180-0mph instantaneously. I’m sure somebody else will be able to calculate the forces involved. The HANs (head restraint thingy) probably wouldn’t have saved him. Even if your head doesn’t move, your brain does, and that’s not good for you.

At least it happened doing what he loved and not in a plane crash, like Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki.

Quoth kiffa:

Let me guess… A mangled mass of styrofoam? That’s exactly what it should have looked like. Bicycle helmets are designed to protect you from one and only one head trauma. The helmet gets mangled, so your head doesn’t. If they made helmets out of a solid piece of high-carbon steel, or some such, capable of surviving a crash, they wouldn’t offer any protection: Hitting the inside of a piece of high-carbon steel isn’t going to be any better than hitting the pavement.

I presume that you threw out the helmet, and got another one.

Yes, Chronos, I did buy her another helmut after cleaning up the gazillion bits of styrofoam scattered over the garage floor. [I also harass the neighborhood kids about getting helmuts to “soften whatever blows will come”.] The point I was trying to make from this example is that some accidents will be fatal no matter what is done to protect the body - be it a 90 degree wall smashing at 180+ mpr or running over someone’s head with a vehicle.

Well, ironically, Dale Earnhardt was one of the least safety-conscious drivers out there. He wore the open helmet and called the HANS device something “for sissies”

Well, I wish the practical applications of my college physics weren’t so grim…but here goes…

Acceleration is velocity over time…if his car slowed from 180 miles per hour to nothing instantaneously (we could say half a second for the purpose of the calculations) then we have an acceleration of 360 m/(h^2)

Force is mass times acceleration…a Winston Cup car weighs about 3500 pounds, so we end up with 1,260,000 lb * m/(h^2) (forgive me…don’t know the English equivalent of Newtons), or if we look at it quantitatively, picture just how much force it would take to stop 3500 pounds traveling at 180 mph in less than a second…too much for any human being to survive :(.

Oops…meant qualitatively, of course.

Just to add a little bit to what’s already been stated, usually the spectacular crashes are not as likely to be fatal because every tumble of the car absorbs a bit more of the energy. With the bouncing, flipping and tumbling crashes the danger lies more in the potential of crushing the car than in the impacts themselves, which are comparatively much less intense than a head-on halt. In a “street” car, tumbling crashes are often fatal because the the repeated impacts demolish the car and, therefore, the driver (provided the driver isn’t ejected, which brings a wnole new set of problems). In NASCAR vehicles, however, while the car may be torn to shreds in a tumbling crash, the driver is kept safe in the “capsule” formed by the sturdy roll cage. Unfortunately for Dale Earnhardt, Adam Petty and others who have died in wall impacts, the roll cage is practically irrelevant.

I remember watching something on the history of racing and I believe a Indy Race in the 70’s made the entire racing world stand up and take notice due to the horrible number of injuries and I believe a few deaths because most of the cars were giving up safety in reference to weight vs speed.

I distinctly remember seeing one car get its front torn off to where you saw the guys legs sticking out.
Can anyone give me more detail or point me to a link to the story on that race and the subsequent rules that were put in place because of it?

I think i have a minor problem with the 180 to 0 in one second thing, and the ensuing physics. See, DE did not hit the wall “head-on” as it were; yes, the front of his car hit the wall first, but he still had a lot of velocity travelling down the race track.

Lets call the direction of travel (before accident) the negative X direction (-X) and the direction to the top of the track turn (where the wall is) Y. At the start of the accident, he was all -X. This gives him a momentum of 80.6 kg m/s in the negative X direction. All momentum must be conserved (we can’t use consv of kinetic energy since the collision was not perfectly elastic).

If he had actually hit the wall “head-on”, we could say he went from 180 mph to 0 in one second and caluclate the impulse (change in momentum with Force and Time). However, he had some momentum in the -X and Y directions when he hit the wall. It’s the momentum in the Y direction that was the nasty part. Just what that Y momentum was depends on the angle the car was travelling (with respect to the -X direction) when it hit the wall. I don’t know the angle.

For example, if the angle was 45 degrees, the Y momentum would be half the total momentum (sin 45 = .5). Of course, this assumes that there was no loss of momentum between the nudge and the impact - not at all true, but we’re working in estimates.

The famous crash with the guys legs dangling in front of him was Stan Fox at the Indy 500 in 1995. On the first turn of the race his car got sideways while low on the track for reasons unknown and he turned up straight into the wall, much like Earnhardt did. The pointy end of his car was ripped away as it flew up into the catch fencing. The car rolled to a stop with Stan sitting motionless, his legs in front of him. The ABC broadcast of the race didn’t give a good view of the crash but the following day most every paper in the country printed the picture that you probably remember.

Here’s a vivid account of the crash…

Amazingly Stan didn’t break a single bone in his body. He did suffer a “closed head injury”, a serious bruise to his brain. While he eventually recovered enough to live a semi-normal life he was never the same person and was never allowed to race competitively again, even though he tried hard to find a doctor to let him. Sadly, he was killed in a traffic accident in New Zealand at the end of last year.

A number of lives were lost at Indy to fire and as a result Indy type cars now use methanol fuel, which dilutes easily in case of fire. In the distant past Indy racers were a lot like today’s stock cars, built of strong steel so as not to break apart during collisions. Eventually they realized that it is better for cars to break apart on impact while surrounding the driver’s cockpit with a survival cell which is designed not to break. NASCAR has neglected to make use of many of the innovations that CART & Formula 1 have pioneered since their “bad old days” ended in the early 1980s.

Unfortunately Indy cars had their own bad year, back in 1999. The first death was very similar to Dale Earnhardt’s. Rookie Gonzalo Rodrigeuz approached a corner to fast, hit a curb and was launched slightly into the air. Unable to stop, his car his a wall nose first and somersaulted over. He was killed instantly. He may have survived if he had been wearing the HANS. He might have never raced again like Stan Fox, but he wouldn’t be dead. Just a little over a month later Greg Moore was killed when his car dug into the infield grass after spinning in a turn and begin to tumble wildly and disintegrate. He was killed when his cockpit landed on an infield wall upside down. The HANS device probably would not have made a difference.

Though the story of the one you showed me was close…it was not what I was thinking

It was the worst Indianapolis 500 in history for recorded fatalities. The weekend in 1973 opened with a practice-run crash by driver Salt Walther that left Walther and 11 spectators badly burned and wrecked 11 other cars. The same year, driver Art Pollard was killed in a crash during practice. Driver Swede Savage crashed during the race and died later in a hospital. Rushing out to help Savage, one of his crew was hit and killed by a fire truck speeding to the crash.

The following year officials made rule changes that they hoped would prevent violent car explosions. They decreased the amount of fuel the cars could hold and switched the cars’ tanks to the left side–away from the outside walls.
Unfortunatly, this is all I could find on that particular year. I do remember it vividly because of the huge explosions they filmed. If anyone finds anything else, I would like to see it.