EarnhardtInvestigation.com was established after American race car driver and seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt was killed on Feb. 18, 2001, in a violent crash during the Daytona 500 race at the Daytona International Speedway (DIS) in Daytona Beach, Florida.
The death of Dale Earnhardt became a matter of public controversy when circumstances surrounding the nature of his death were questioned, and when public record autopsy files were sought to be withheld from the public by efforts from members of the racing industry.
After Earnhardt’s death, independent photo-journalist and website entrepreneur Michael Uribe, investigated into previous deaths occurring at the DIS. Of the deaths uncovered, two drivers, Neil Bonnett, and Rodney Orr, both were killed in violence race car crashes at the track. Even more surprising was how both drivers suffered similar injuries consistent with basil skull fractures, the same kind of injury Dale Earnhardt reportedly suffered as well.
This simple search, revealing this trends of violent death ongoing in the racing industry were uncovered by use of the public records access system. A public records request can be made by any member of the public onto any government entity. In this case, Uribe’s public records request for both Bonnett and Orr public records was submitted to the Volusia Country Medical Examiner (VCME). The VCME handles the autopsies of driver’s killed at DIS, to include Dale Earnhardt.
If it wasn’t for the accessibility of the public record autopsy file photographs of Bonnett and Orr, the last two autopsy file records access prior to Florida changing their public records laws, Dale Earnhardt’s death would have not resulted in the massive safety changes demanded upon the industry. Members of the public, and media were able to see for themselves from the autopsy photographs of Bonnett and Orr which were stored on internet servers. It were these images, enhanced by the celebrity of Dale Earnhardt, which made the public become increasingly aware of the death and violence ongoing in the for-profit, multi-billion dollar racing industry.
The autopsy pictures spoke the thousand words that photographs do. Instantly, the racing industry saw this as a threat to their image which typically is portrayed as a warm and fuzzy, family spectator even. Holding “seat belt awareness” presentations to veil their industries deadly past.
In fact, the atmosphere at the race track includes drugs, alcohol, bathroom floors layered with puddles of urine, scantly dressed females vending beer underneath the stadium. And that doesn’t include what goes on in the middle of the track where exclusive access is sold for a price. At the center of it all, the “gladiator games” take place before a spectator sport among the largest in the world.
So what really are the spectators watching? Many will admit they are there waiting on the edge of their seats for the next horrific crash. Like being ringside to a boxing match. Watching two people get paid to beat each other up into bloody pulps. All along the “spectators” are watching, and waiting for the boxer to land the knockout blow onto the other sending him crashing down onto the canvas. The entire event is then later rebroadcasted, for a price, over and over on both print and video formats onto websites, news reports, magazines, and newspapers all over the world. Fulfilling the age long motto, “if it bleeds it leads.”
As the controversy grew, so did the speculation surrounding the cause of the death of Dale Earnhardt. How did he die? The crash wasn’t that spectacular. It didn’t involve multiple cars, dramatic flips, or flames, which are typical characteristics of crashes that lead to deaths.
Shortly after the crash, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc. (NASCAR) sought to attribute Earnhardt’s death to seat belt failure which was strongly disputed by Bill Simpson, founder of Simpson Performance Products, manufacturer of the seatbelts used in Dale Earnhardt’s race car.
Then, on Feb. 13, 2002, just before the next Daytona 500 race at DIS, Simpson filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against NASCAR for defamation, in Marion County Superior Court.
The Earnhardts too maintained their vigorous legal battles in the courts against the release of the public record autopsy files. They sought the services of a leading public relations firm to help manage the intense public outcry following the death of Dale Earnhardt and as to speculation to the cause of his death.
Even before the public and legal controversy ramped up, the Earnhardts and racing industry instinctively engaged in damage control which included receiving unusual preferential treatment by the VCME’s office itself.
First, the VCME gave the Earnhardts a heads up that public records requests were being made in connection to Dale Earnhardt’s death. In doing this, the VCME basically went from a public institution, sworn to uphold the public’s interest, to a private institution, catering to the needs of the racing industry.
This heads up given to the Earnhardts allowed them the advantage to file their injunction derailing access to the public records, and disturbing the automatic release provision of the public records laws of Florida.
Second, a racing industry paid staff member, Dr. Steve Bohannon, director of emergency medical services at DIS, had already sought and obtained access to the autopsy records for Dale Earnhardt. Bohannon later testified he reported his findings back to members of the racing industry, to include the Earnhardts. Again, the VCME’s office worked with providing as much leverage to the racing industry, while subverting its obligations to the public’s interests for the entire state of Florida.
Bohannon would later testify in open court the impact the public record autopsy file records impressed upon him and what they would make on the general public if released. The already publicly accessible public record autopsy file records for Bonnett and Orr were introduced later at trial to demonstrate just how bloody, deadly and violent racing truly is.
Because of the immense celebrity status of Dale Earnhardt, which the racing industry enjoyed when things were going their way, the impact of his death would reach millions of people. This meant the public would then be able to see a side of racing the industry it would prefer them not to see. That is, the bloody death and violence that occurs on the track when a car crashes.
The inside of a race track, like that at DIS with some exception is private property. Therefore, what happens before, during and after a deadly crash is largely dependent on the integrity of the reporting systems designed to penetrate that private property. There were two agencies entrusted to conduct meaningful reports at the time of Dale Earnhardt’s violent death. Local law enforcement to prepare the “accident report” and the VCME to conduct the autopsy to determine cause of death.
The integrity of these two reporting systems breaks down when the information and evidence they rely on for their reports is generated by either on or off duty law enforcement working the race, contracted emergency medical personnel, such as Bohannon, and other hired staff and employees, to include the operators of all the media equipment covering the race, to include photographers, and video camera operators which was quite extensive at the time given the numerous hi-resolution video cameras posted all around the track and inside and outside of the race cars.
These race track agents arguably are unreliable as evidence gatherers at the time of a deadly crash for the very simple reason they may feel pressured to avoid providing detailed or critical reports for fear of loosing their access, contract, job or lucrative positions working the racing event. This was evident due to the limited amount of photographs, or other video material contained in the police report and VCME autopsy records.
The only records that demonstrate this, and which were not in the immediate control of the racing industry would be those of the public record autopsy files, and of the police report generated when the crash is reported to local law enforcement.
After the lawsuit was filed, the matter would have initially been swept under the carpet after the Orlando Sentinel, and other media organizations agreed to drop their lawsuit in exchange to allow select individuals access to the public record autopsy files of Dale Earnhardt. The deal, crafted behind closed doors during meeting Uribe was not notified of, provided that select individuals would be permitted to visually inspect, but not copy material contained within the public record autopsy files. Another violation of public access to public records law.
Because the order authorizing limited access to the public record autopsy records was not legally valid, Uribe filed an appeal seeking to invalidate the agreement. The overlying principle being that public records are just that, public records. Access to which was not done in part, nor did access take into consideration the celebrity, political or wealth of the individuals to which the records pertained. Lastly, the court was not permitted to contract around the public records laws, as the agreement sought to do by providing limited access to selected individuals agreed to by the parties. In essence, creating an on-the-fly system of access to public records custom designed to the Earnhardt’s liking. Making the matter more controversial, was how even the VCME disagreed with the limited access agreement, and petitioned the court accordingly.
It was clear, the Earnhardts, the state of Florida, the racing industry and elected court officials all wanted this go go away in a hasty fashion by subverting long standing traditional public records access laws on behalf of the interest of a few elite, wealthy individuals and a multi-billion dollar racing industry. An industry which requires racers to sign waivers preventing wrongful death lawsuits from being filed against racing interests in the event the race car driver is killed. Thus, stacking the deck further in favor of the racing industry from legal, and now public scrutiny.
Bottom line, the multi-billion dollar racing industry and interested parties were about to have the curtains pulled back to their for-profit, deadly and violent racing activity. Because of the celebrity status of Dale Earnhardt, millions of people were watching the events unfold in the media and in the courts.
The Earnhardt’s, realized they were standing on thin legal ice in the courts to prevent access to public record autopsy files, backed by a long standing of legal precedent, shifted their legal strategy toward influencing the Florida legislature to create a new law preventing access to the records. Florida law makers eventually gave the Earnhardts what they wanted. The new law would benefit the multi-billion dollar racing industry which included the Earnhardts, Dale Earnhardt, Inc., NASCAR and the peripheral businesses which thrived on income generated by the Daytona 500, a Super Bowl of racing, held annually in Daytona Beach, Florida..
The Florida legislature miraculously produced a custom new law, the Earnhardt Family Protection Act (EFPA), which prevents the release of what was once publicly accessible material contained in the medical examiner’s autopsy reports. The speed at which the EFPA was enacted, within less than 30 days, was another indication of the leverage the racing industry had on system.
The EFPA, eventually was signed into law by Florida’s Governor. It included a key provision which made it retroactively applicable to any outstanding public records requests as well. This insured that any currently outstanding requests for access to the public record autopsy files pertaining to Dale Earnhardt would be denied. This retroactive provision, was yet another unprecedented provision working its way into the twists and turns surrounding the death of Dale Earnhardt.
A long legal battle then ensued involving the Earnhardts, the State of Florida, the VCME the Independent Florida Alligator, and Uribe which took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Then on December 1, 2003, the case was denied certification for review by the U.S. Supreme Court, leaving in place the new March 29, 2001 Florida law which changed Florida’s public records laws pertaining to access to autopsy file records from that day forward.
It has been over ten years since Dale Earnhardt’s death. And December 1, 2013 marks the 10th Anniversary 0f the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to here the case. Yet, are we any closer to understanding the full story stemming from that infamous day on Feb. 18, 2001?
Many questions still remain unanswered. Why were only 13 photographs taken of Earnhardt’s wrecked race car? Why were only 33 autopsy photographs taken of the body during the medical examination? Why was key evidence, such as the helmet, and the race suit given to Teresa Earnhardt at the emergency room, and not given to the VCME for their examination? Why did legal counsel affiliated with the DIS initially file the Earnhardt’s lawsuit, and then remove themselves later on in the case? What happened behind the scenes in the Florida legislature causing the prompt and the expeditious creation of the Earnhardt Family Protection Act? What was the true motivation behind the lawsuit filed against Uribe which sought to prevent his continued investigation into the previous deaths of Neil Bonnett and Rodney Orr, two drivers who were killed at DIS and both suffering the same basil skull fracture injuries as Dale Earnhardt?
In an effort to shed more light onto all these unanswered questions and more, the search for the truth continues here at EarnhardtInvestigation.com.