USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC

Media Skid on NASCAR Reporting
Further Analysis of Journalism's Misstep in Earnhardt's Death

'Something's just not right here.' - e-mail to the author, 2/22/01

It sure isn't. Turns out Dale Earnhardt wasn't killed by the elemental forces of a '180 mph head-on collision' after all -- despite the near-unanimous findings of the mainstream U.S. media.

According to reports Friday, an inspection of the NASCAR great's car revealed a broken seatbelt, which apparently caused him to be pitched forward into the steering wheel, resulting in a fatal skull fracture, among other injuries.

Source of the latest news: Dr. Steve Bohannon, who shares with America's journalists at least part of the responsibility for the confounding coverage of Earnhardt's death in last Sunday's Daytona 500.

At a press conference following the race and its deadly conclusion, a clearly shaken Bohannon (as director of emergency medical service at Daytona, he'd been involved in trackside attempts to revive Earnhardt) offered the view that a basal skull fracture -- similar in nature to the injuries which last season killed racers Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper -- would likely prove to be the cause of death. Journalists took his word to be final, thus building the first layer of confusion.

Bohannon also mentioned that no facial trauma was present. 'I know the full-face helmet wouldn't have made a difference,' he said, referring to Earnhardt's preference for older-style, open-face helmets which expose the jaw.

(The no-facial trauma comment ignited various chat rooms, and -- having now seen tape of events post-crash -- I can understand why. Driver Ken Shrader, who'd collided with Earnhardt just prior to Earnhardt hitting the wall, is shown calmly strolling over to Earnhardt's Chevrolet after both cars had slid to halt in the infield. His manner is that of someone who believes the crash was not that big a deal. Then he briefly peers inside Earnhardt's car and instantly becomes frantic, waving to officials and running to the pit lane. God only knows what he saw.)

Preliminary autopsy reports released late on Monday revealed a different cause of death to that supposed by Bohannon: a skull fracture running from the front of Earnhardt's head to the rear, the apparent source being a blunt force injury to the back of the head.

Then, on Friday, we learned of the failed seat belt (about which rumors had been circulating on the Net since late on the evening of the race). According to Bohannon: 'The belt gave way and let the body move forward and to the right, and it likely contacted the steering wheel with the chest and face. It appears that probably his chin struck the steering column in such a way that the forces were transferred up the mandible ... and into the base of the skull.'

The blunt force injury to the back of the head is no longer a factor, we've returned to a basal skull fracture instead of the front-to-rear break described in the autopsy report, and the open-face helmet is now something which may have made a significant difference. Confused? I am. Especially after reading this at '[NASCAR President Mike] Helton said the broken belt was discovered Sunday evening after the accident.'

Discovered Sunday evening? Before the autopsy? This is becoming farcical. Yet as of Saturday, there were few journalists prepared to examine the myriad contradictions of the week's official announcements and counter-announcements.

One of the few is The Charlotte Observer's Mike Stobbe, who sought out some actual medical experts to analyze the broken seatbelt theory. Noting that the fatal injury -- now defined as a ring fracture at the skull's base -- is usually caused by deceleration, one expert pointed out that the allegedly broken seatbelts obviously 'worked well enough to at least partially restrain the body and enable that kind of action to occur.' Another wondered how a break in the lap section of the belt, which is what NASCAR claims happened, didn't result in more lower-body injuries than just a broken ankle.

(Note: Simpson Race Products, makers of the belts in question, have a pristine record. Their belts have withstood forces far beyond those imparted in the Earnhardt crash.)

'As for Earnhardt's head injury, Bohannon said he believes the driver hit his chin on the steering wheel,' Stobbe wrote. Yet Earnhardt's jaw wasn't broken and his teeth were fine. Stobbe -- clinical and thoughtful -- is asking the right questions. He is required reading on this subject.

As for the rest ... the best analysts have been ordinary citizens or NASCAR fans posting their comments on Web sites or e-mailing their outrage to journalists (see the OJR forum for some examples; several advanced the possibility of a broken or loose seatbelt days before the NASCAR announcement). A consistent theme is the apparent mildness of the crash compared to its terrible outcome.

Which is where we come to a troubling issue; that of mainstream journalism's connection to the mainstream. While fans wrote of their disbelief that such a seemingly soft crash could have killed Earnhardt, the media took the view that nobody could survive such an impact. Even on Friday, Reuters was still reporting that Earnhardt 'slammed into a wall at about 180 mph' when the collision was plainly at a much lower speed.

Racing fans saw the story as: 'How the hell did Dale die?' The media ran with: 'Dale is dead! Buy our souvenir edition!' (The Daytona News-Journal, by the way, printed an extra 90,000 editions on Monday. Headline: 'Black Sunday'.)

After OJR ran my first piece on the Earnhardt crash, I received several e-mails pointing out that it was unfair of me to expect mainstream journalists to understand NASCAR in general, and the Earnhardt crash in particular. May I ask why?

But NASCAR isn't something mainstream journalists know much about. Every so often a U.S. newspaper sends someone to find out what's going on at these huge NASCAR events, and the writer always feels the need to run through the entire history of the sport, as though explaining the rituals of a newly-discovered Himalayan tribe. A classic example of the genre is Peter Carlson's 1999 Washington Post piece, 7,700 words of condescension ('Why ... would anybody want to watch guys covered with ads drive cars covered with ads around in a circle for three or four hours?') blended with technical ignorance ('Engines [run] at 8,500 revolutions per minute ? about four times the average street car's rate'). Remember the red/blue map of the U.S. showing voting by county after last year's election? Imagine the blue representing journalists, and the red standing for NASCAR fans.

A similar trend is evident here in Australia, and in England. While massive slabs of humanity might be passionately involved in X, the media is busy examining Y -- Y being coffee prices or experimental dance theater or cell phone statistics or something else nobody cares about. The mainstream press has become a fringe phenomenon (the Associated Press's sports news list is telling -- NASCAR is included among 'other sports', below hockey, tennis, college events, and golf.) Thank God for the Net.

And for Earnhardt himself. His life was a gothic American saga of bravery, ambition, and fate. Tom Wolfe wrote of his kind decades ago, in a piece for Esquire on NASCAR legend Junior Johnson (another #3 Chevrolet driver): '... a breed of mountain men who are living vestiges of a degree of physical courage that became extinct in most other sections of the country by 1900.'

Hopefully Wolfe will be invited by someone to write about Earnhardt. Forget, for the time being, all the filthy confusion over his death. Ironhead deserves a lyrical obituary.