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Doctor: Earnhardt Disliked Device

February 20, 2001

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) _ A neurosurgeon who treated Dale Earnhardt for 3 1/2 years said Tuesday the racer didn’t use a head and neck support or closed-face helmet because ``he felt trapped.″

Dr. Charles Branch Jr. of Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center said he once talked with Earnhardt about the Head And Neck Support (HANS) device _ a helmet and brace meant to help prevent head and neck injuries during crashes.

``He felt like it restricted him in the car,″ Branch said. ``He enjoyed being able to look around and sense his environment. The HANS device ... he wasn’t there yet.″

Earnhardt also scorned a closed-face helmet because it ``was heavier and would be more likely to injure him,″ Branch said.

Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion, died in a 180-mph crash during the final lap of Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Only about a half-dozen competitors in the 43-car Daytona field were wearing the HANS. NASCAR has decided not to make it mandatory without additional testing.

Branch wouldn’t speculate on whether the HANS device might have saved Earnhardt.

He said there was little that could have saved Earnhardt’s life given the force of the crash.

``If Dale wanted to absolutely avoid this kind of injury, he wouldn’t have gotten in the car,″ Branch said. ``That was his choice. That was Dale.″

Branch performed disc surgery on Earnhardt in 1999 and said he talked monthly with the 49-year-old driver, who was proud of his good physical shape.

``He critically evaluated everything,″ Branch said. ``He had a devil-may-care, swashbuckling image, but he was very shrewd.″

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