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June 2001

2001 June
NASCAR Spins Out


NASCAR may have created a PR crisis that didn't need to be.
On Sunday, February 18, Dale Earnhardt was on the final lap of the Daytona 500. When another car brushed the back of the legendary racer's black Chevrolet, Earnhardt, driving at 180 miles per hour, swerved up the banked track and plowed nose-first into a concrete barrier. He was rushed to a hospital. More than an hour after the crash, a NASCAR spokesperson announced that Earnhardt's condition was "serious." Actually, the 49-year-old racing superstar was already dead -- he had died instantly in the crash.

That was just the first of numerous mistakes, evasions, and misleading comments from NASCAR officials -- comments that, according to journalists and public-relations experts, contributed to an atmosphere of confusion and hostility in the wake of the Earnhardt tragedy. Indeed, it took NASCAR nearly two hours from the time of the accident to publicly confirm Earnhardt's death. The delay meant that coverage of the race, which was being aired live on Fox, was completed before the world learned the sad news, giving rise to suspicions that NASCAR officials purposely put out bad information.

"Of course, they had to know he was dead," says Monte Dutton, a reporter who has covered NASCAR for nine years for The Gaston Gazette in Gastonia, N.C.

NASCAR, which would not comment for this story, has long been known for its ferocious protection of its image and for its stinginess with information, particularly as it relates to matters of safety. Last year, as the sport moved into the mainstream (with a $3 billion network contract), NASCAR's tactics became even more aggravating to the journalists who cover the stock-car circuit. But it's not just a matter of keeping reporters happy: NASCAR's handling of the Earnhardt tragedy may complicate its hopes of broadening the sport's appeal. By turning a tragic but straightforward crash into a big mystery, NASCAR seems to have created a PR crisis that didn't need to be.

"A catastrophic event doesn't always lead to a crisis," says John Burke, president of Strategic Communications and a PR-crisis specialist. "It's usually an inept response that leads to a crisis." That seems to be what happened in this instance, and not just with the initial announcement about Earnhardt's condition. The day after the crash, NASCAR held another press conference, at which a reporter peppered NASCAR president Michael Helton with questions about whether Earnhardt's death would cause the organization to require drivers to use a new safety feature called a HANS (for "head and neck support"), which is a simple brace that in the event of a crash keeps a driver's head from whipping forward. Helton would not give a clear answer.

Over the next several days, numerous press reports raised the question of whether the device could have saved Earnhardt, but NASCAR declined to engage in the debate and didn't conduct another press conference for four days.

When NASCAR finally did meet with the media again, on Friday, February 23, another controversy erupted. Helton told reporters that Earnhardt's seat belt had malfunctioned and broken during the crash, and acknowledged that he had known this fact since the night of the accident. According to NASCAR, investigators needed to be sure the belt hadn't been cut while Earnhardt was being removed from his car. Reporters were incredulous. Their misgivings were compounded when, at the same press conference, Dr. Steve Bohannon -- who was working for NASCAR at Daytona and had declared Earnhardt dead -- changed his description of the racer's injuries. Days earlier, Bohannon had said that Earnhardt "had no evidence of facial injuries." But now he was saying that Earnhardt's chin had struck the steering wheel, causing an abrasion. The media pounced on the discrepancy, suggesting that it was related to NASCAR's defensiveness over the HANS issue.

The races will go on, but clearly, NASCAR is now dealing with an exceedingly skeptical press. "Not only do I not have much contact with their lead officials," says reporter Dutton, "but I don't particularly want to. I'm tired of being misled."

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