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FEBRUARY 19, 2001

NASCAR mourns Dale Earnhardt

THE death of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt in a crash during the Daytona 500 on Sunday is likely to cause a major review of safety in the popular stock car series. The death of the seven-time NASCAR champion is a blow of a similar kind to that suffered by Formula 1 with the death of Ayrton Senna in 1994 which led to a complete rethinking of the rules of Formula 1.

Earnhardt was so famous that US President George W Bush sent his condolences to Earnhardt's wife Teresa.

Earnhardt died after a high speed crash in the final corner on the final lap of the Daytona 500 while he was battling for third place with Sterling Marlin's Dodge. Earnhardt's Chevrolet went sideways and was hit by the Pontiac of Ken Schrader and both cars went into the wall at around 180mph. Emergency crews were on the scene immediately but the 49-year-old star was beyond hope. Earnhardt was rushed to the trauma unit at the track but could not be revived. The local medical examiner is to hold an autopsy to establish the cause of death but it is expected that this will result of a verdict of head injuries.

Earnhardt was one of the few drivers in topline motorsport today who used an open-faced helmet and it remains to be seen whether this was a contributory factor in his death. Observers said that the accident did not look to be too bad when compared to some of the massive accidents that have occurred in NASCAR over the years.

It was first fatal accident at Daytona since Neil Bonnett died at the track in 1994 but comes within months of the deaths of NASCAR drivers Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin in different accidents at the same corner of the New Hampshire International Speedway.

Earnhardt's career in NASCAR dated back to 1975. The Daytona 500 was his 676th event during which time he scored 76 victories and earned an amazing $41m in prize money and many millions more in merchandising.

"NASCAR has lost its greatest driver," said the organization's boss Bill France Jr.

The series has long tried to hold back technological progress to ensure that the racing is close but Earnhardt's death is likely to add to pressure for more safety in NASCAR.