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Veteran auto racing writer chased the story and the truth

From the Spring 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 7.

From the Spring 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 7.

Ed Hinton cares about motor sports. As a writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sports Illustrated and the Tribune Company newspapers, he has covered more than 500 auto races in the past 20 years, written countless articles, and interviewed the greatest drivers. Hinton’s investigative series in the Orlando Sentinel in February 2001 prompted the Sentinel‘s desire for an expert review of the autopsy photos of driver Dale Earnhardt.

Hinton began investigating NASCAR’s safety record last July after the deaths of drivers Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin. By the time the series ran in February, another driver, Tony Roper, had died in a crash on the circuit.

“We were just going to examine the whole situation with Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty and we were thinking about different angles and just decided to go where the truth led us,” Hinton said. “I was so accustomed to NASCAR’s safety practices being so primitive compared to the more sophisticated CART and Formula One, and I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

“I began to realize that the American public didn’t know about this, and I realized that NASCAR was the most popular race car circuit in the United States, and the most wealthy, and spends nothing compared to the rest on safety,” he said.

Hinton’s concerns about NASCAR safety took center stage on Feb. 18, the day Earnhardt died at Daytona.

“It was probably about 10 minutes after he hit that I realized that he was more than likely dead and I do remember thinking, ‘Geez, I had no idea,'” Hinton said. “I mean, I considered a possibility that it would happen again this season if they didn’t change things, but Earnhardt and the 500?”

An eery feeling washed over Hinton. “It was almost like if there were racing gods, they touched turn four at the Daytona 500 and said, ‘OK, are we making our point with you NASCAR? How emphatic do we have to be?'” he said.

One week later, while on assignment at another race, Hinton learned of the Sentinel‘s decision to hire an expert to view the autopsy photographs to determine what caused Earnhardt’s basilar skull fracture. By this time, he said there was a growing belief among members of the NASCAR community that seat belt failure was the cause of Earnhardt’s death.

“This process of having this autopsy reexamined was necessary to get to the truth because of the strange ground flutter that had grown up after Dr. [Steve] Bohannon’s press conference,” Hinton said. Bohannon, whose presence at the track is financed by NASCAR, said that he believed that failure of Earnhardt’s seat belt caused his fatal injury. “Crew chiefs were saying ‘I guess it was just his time and he would be winning the Winston Cup points if his seat belt hadn’t broken.'”

After witnessing the tone among the NASCAR crew chiefs and speaking to an editor about the newspaper’s efforts to obtain the autopsy photos, Hinton said he understood the logic behind the newspaper’s actions.

“We were just trying to get to the truth,” he said.

Although Hinton did not participate in the Sentinel’s fight for the records, he received an onslaught of calls and e-mails from NASCAR fans because his byline appeared at the top of the three-day series.

“When Teresa came on television in Las Vegas, it had the effect of loosening the NASCAR masses on the Sentinel. And from that point it got nastier,” Hinton said. “I know some have characterized the response we got as a fan protest, but I would call it a NASCAR riot.”

Sentinel editors said from the beginning that they were not going to publish the autopsy photos. “But to this day I get e-mails that say ‘you sick obscenity, obscenity, scumbag, I know you want to publish this for money’ — they always say that,” he said.

But Hinton is confident that the public would not have known the truth about the cause of Earnhardt’s death without the Sentinel‘s fight to have an expert view the autopsy photographs. His experience covering the circuit convinced him that a thorough review of the autopsy photographs would indicate that Earnhardt died from a head-whip basilar skull fracture.

“The outcome is 95 percent what I anticipated,” he said. “When the whole court battle began, I had no doubt, scientifically, that if we could get a neutral, true expert in there, he was going to find that it would be a head-whipped basilar skull fracture. I had talked to too many experts that were too certain and the pattern was already in motion. We had three in nine months and with the whole situation — the angle of impact, no HANS device — I knew we were going to have four in 10.” — CC