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Why Senna and Earnhardt's deaths are their greatest legacies

February 18th marks 23 years since the death of Dale Earnhardt in the Daytona 500 - and it is 30 years in May since Ayrton Senna was killed at Imola.

Dale Earnhardt
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To news overview © NASCAR Media

Victory lane, Talladega Superspeedway, May 1st 1994.

Dale Earnhardt Sr has just taken his third win of the NASCAR season hours after the death of Ayrton Senna in the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola - and immediately pays tribute to the fallen Brazilian.

"I want to send our thoughts and prayers to the family of Ayrton Senna and all his fans," he says.

"He was a great racer and it is a shame to see him go like he did, it is tough."

Just under seven years later, on February 18th, 2001 Earnhardt too would be killed in a race car, suffering a basilar skull fracture in a last lap crash at the Daytona 500.

At their peaks, Senna and Earnhardt were the best F1 and NASCAR drivers in the world, they were the men to beat.

If Ayrton Senna and Dale Earnhardt could die at the wheel of a racing car like Jim Clark in 1968, then what hope did the rest of the field have?

In the aftermath of the deaths of Senna and Roland Ratzenberger, then FIA President Max Mosley ushered through a package of changes to make cars and tracks safer, with there not being another fatality in Grand Prix racing until Jules Bianchi in July 2015 - nine months after his 2014 Japanese GP accident.

Earnhardt's death ushered in a similar safety crusade - most recently seen in the Cup Series just earlier this week in Speedweeks at Daytona ahead of the 500, with reigning Cup champion Ryan Blaney.

Earnhardt's death

In the months before Earnhardt's death, fellow NASCAR racers Kenny Irwin Jr, Tony Roper and Adam Petty - the grandson of Earnhardt's fellow seven-time Cup champion Richard Petty - were all killed due to basilar skull fractures.

In October 2001, Blaise Alexander was killed at Charlotte bringing the number to five in a period of just 17 months, Earnhardt included.

In the final lap accident that claimed Earnhardt's life, he made contact with another car rounding the Turn 4 banking, and was spat into the hard concrete wall at about 160mph.

He was not wearing a HANS or Hutchens device and so his head snapped forward and hit the steering wheel, causing the fatal fracture.

Coupled with that, Earnhardt was wearing an open-faced helmet which was the norm at the time.

'The Intimidator' was firmly against the HANS device, believing it to be uncomfortable and even referred to it as a "noose".

After Alexander's death later in 2001, on October 17, 2001, NASCAR mandated the use of HANS in the Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series. F1 would not follow suit until 2003.

But it is not just there that Earnhardt's death pushed NASCAR safety forward.

SAFER barriers were installed at all tracks to provide a soft cushion in impacts as opposed to unforgiving concrete.

Moreover, NASCAR is continuing to evolve protecting the driver even to this day with the seat being moved more centrally to lessen the forces on the driver in side-on impacts, such as in Ryan Newman's airborne accident at the 2020 Daytona 500.

As for Blaney, his accident in the Duels, available to see below, was somewhat similar to Earnhardt in that he was spat across the track and hit the wall hard.

Fortunately, the driver is now cocooned in their cockpits, and the Team Penske driver was quickly able to clamber from his burning wreck.

For the great rivalries and moments Senna and Earnhardt delivered on track with the likes of Alain Prost and Jeff Gordon, respectively, their greatest legacy to motorsport is the safety crusades that followed.

Safety in motorsport would no doubt have found its way to the levels we see today, but the deaths of two of the all-time greats gave it a giant kick in the right direction.

Senna and Earnhardt would never know that is will be their lasting legacies to a sport they gave everything to on-track, and ultimately their lives.

			© XPBimages
	© XPBimages

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