ROCKINGHAM, N.C. - Dale Earnhardt's seat belt broke as he crashed on the final lap of last Sunday's Daytona 500, hurtling the seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion into the steering wheel and to an instant death.
NASCAR officials confirmed Friday the left lap belt ripped between its mounting to the car's roll cage and the buckle near the driver's chest. Without restraint, Mr. Earnhardt hit his chin and chest against the steering wheel, dying instantly.
"I've never heard or seen a seat belt break before," said crew chief Phil Hammer, a veteran of both the NASCAR Busch and Winston Cup series. "When you hear something like that happened, it makes you realize it was just his time. That's all. It was his time to go."
Richard Childress, owner of Mr. Earnhardt's car, said the seat belt and race car were both new. NASCAR said it would investigate how the belt ripped during the 180-mph impact with the fourth turn wall.
"The integrity of the restraint was certainly compromised by the failure of the webbing (in the belt)," said Gary Nelson, NASCAR's director of competition.
Dr. Steve Bohannan, a trauma specialist who worked on Mr. Earnhardt at the race track and at the hospital, said it's likely he would have survived the crash if the seat belt had done its job.
"His chin hit the steering wheel, and the force of that transferred through the mandible and fractured the base of the skull," Dr. Bohannan said. "No one can say for sure (if a functional seat belt would have saved Earnhardt). If his restraint system had not failed, he certainly would have had a much better chance of survival."
Dr. Bohannan also said Mr. Earnhardt's decision to wear an open-faced helmet instead of a full-faced helmet may have contributed to his fatal injuries.
"We may have been looking at a different kind of injuries," he said. "A full-faced helmet would have been a benefit, especially since he hit his chin."
NASCAR confirmed Mr. Earnhardt had eight broken ribs, a broken sternum, a broken left ankle and a skull fracture.
Morris News Service also learned late Friday that NASCAR officials obtained footage from FOX Network's in-car cameras placed throughout Mr. Earnhardt's racer, including a camera mounted on the dashboard facing him that might show details of the crash and the way Mr. Earnhardt moved in the cockpit.
While more information is coming out about one of racing's greatest tragedies, plans were also in motion to keep all three cars at Dale Earnhardt Inc. on the track for Sunday's Dura Lube 400 at the North Carolina Speedway, and Mr. Earnhardt's familiar Chevrolet from Richard Childress Racing also will be there.
Kevin Harvick, who was scheduled to compete for Rookie of the Year honors next season on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, will drive Mr. Earnhardt's car for the rest of the 2001 campaign.
The car, however, will be painted white instead of black, and the famous No. 3 will be replaced with No. 29.
"Dale Earnhardt and I, back in the loss of Neil Bonnett, talked about what could happen if ... something happened to him, what would he want to do?" Mr. Childress said. "And it's to go on.
"We're both racers. Dale Earnhardt was a racer. We made a pledge to each other that we would go on. We renewed it again last year at New Hampshire (after the death of driver Kenny Irwin). That's what we're going to do. We're going to do what Dale would want us to do this weekend, and that's race."
Mr. Harvick, who's gone from the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series to the Busch Series to Winston Cup in three seasons, said he will wear a head and neck restraint system during Sunday's race. He also said the 400-mile race Sunday will be the most difficult of his racing career.
"Dale Earnhardt was probably the best race car driver ever in NASCAR," he said. "Nobody is ever going to replace him. We all know that. I hope you guys don't expect me to replace him.
"This will be the hardest thing that will ever happen to me in my life. But that's how it is. Nobody said life was easy. I think this is what Dale Earnhardt would want to happen.
"Hopefully there will be that one time when we get out and say `That was for Dale' when we win our first race. He was a hero to me. He'd want me to drive the hell out of his race car this weekend if he had a broken leg or something, so that's what we're going to do."
Mr. Childress said the No. 3 may return next season, but "We will never run a No. 3 black Goodwrench car again," he said. NASCAR said it would not retire the number.
The car owner fought tears as he tackled the idea of stock car racing without Dale Earnhardt.
"I've asked where Richard Childress goes without him," Mr. Childress said as his voiced tapered to a whisper. "I don't know. I don't know."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. also has asked himself how to go on after his father's death.
"One of the things this really teaches you is how selfish you are about things like this. I miss my father," he said. "I cried for him out of my own selfish pity. I need to maintain a better focus and remember he's in a better place."