NASCAR officials disputed a rescuer's claim that Dale Earnhardt's seatbelt was intact when the racer crashed into a wall and died at the Daytona 500.
Tommy Propst, an Orange County firefighter and emergency medical technician who was one of the first on the scene after the accident, said in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel that he struggled to pull open the seatbelt buckle before finally releasing it.
NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr., however, said Sunday that the separated belt was not found until the morning after the Feb. 18 crash, adding that Winston Cup Series director Gary Nelson was the person who made the discovery.
"It (the seatbelt) was laying down there near the door on the inside," France said. "The car was covered and guarded we put a cover on it, impounded it and locked it up. The medical examiner came over the next morning to take some photographs, and that's when Gary saw the piece of the belt in the floor."
Nelson also disputed Propst's claim, saying that a female rescue worker was the only one to go inside the car immediately following the crash.
Propst told the newspaper he had to pull hard on the seatbelt to get it loose and that it was in one piece at the time. Propst also said no NASCAR officials have asked him about his experience that day.
The racing organization has refused to display the seatbelt and is conducting its own investigation by unidentified experts that is expected to continue throughout the summer.
"NASCAR has always been a tightlipped organization," driver Jeff Burton said Sunday. "But that formula doesn't work well when you've got a lot of people asking questions. So they're open for ridicule by the way they run their business."
Earnhardt's autopsy found that the base of his skull was cracked, causing massive internal injuries and resulting in an almost instant death from the impact of the crash.
Similar injuries caused the deaths of three other drivers last year, causing some to question whether NASCAR should require drivers to wear safety devices that restrain the head and neck and keep them from being jolted forward.
At a news conference a week after the fatal crash, NASCAR officials said the seven-time Winston Cup champion's seatbelt was broken. NASCAR president Mike Helton also said the separated belt was found the evening of the wreck.
Steve Bohannon, an emergency-room doctor who worked on Earnhardt after the crash, said he thought the faulty belt allowed Earnhardt head to strike the steering wheel of his Chevrolet.
However, a court-appointed medical examiner who studied Earnhardt's autopsy photos said that "restraint failure does not appear to have played a role" in the death. That finding by Dr. Barry Myers of Duke University had been hailed by Bill Simpson, founder and chairman of Simpson Performance Products in Mooresville, N.C., which made Earnhardt's belt.
Simpson's secretary, Mary Walker, said Monday that he was out of his office until next wek and would have no comment on the reports.
After hearing of the emergency worker's comments, Simpson told The Charlotte Observer he was "surprised and disappointed to hear that none of this was true.
"I don't know what it all means but I don't like it. I felt all along there was something weird about this whole thing.
Simpson said that NASCAR was "exaggerating" a report that Grand National driver Mike Harmon reported finding a nick in his seat belt after a crash in Nashville earlier this month. Simpson said he has a meeting scheduled for Thursday with France and Helton.
"They're after us," Simpson said of NASCAR. "They're looking for a scapegoat for the Earnhardt thing."
France denied Sunday that NASCAR is trying to make Simpson a scapegoat.
"We have no incentive to want to put the finger on Simpson products, none whatsoever," France said.
©MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed
© 2001 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.