Racing Helmet Worn by Dale Earnhardt, Sr., 1998

Racing Helmet Worn by Dale Earnhardt, Sr., 1998

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The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), founded in 1949, became a hugely popular sport in the United States by the 1990s, rivaling baseball and football. Dale Earnhardt (1951-2001), a native of Kannapolis, North Carolina, was one of the sport's top figures. Beginning in 1975, Earnhardt won seven series championships, including the Winston Cup, NASCAR's top level, and a Daytona 500, then the most prestigious NASCAR race. Earnhardt's death at Daytona in a crash on February 18th, 2001 was traumatic for his fans and for NASCAR and led to improvements in racing safety.
Earnhardt's helmet from the 1998 NASCAR season, an open-face 1996 Simpson model equipped with a microphone, was itself a major step forward in saving drivers' lives in racing crashes. Prior to 1957, the best protective helmets were made of fiberglass and were lined with resilient rubber foam. In that year the Snell Foundation, named for an amateur race car driver who died of massive head injuries, was formed to find better ways of protecting race car drivers, motorcycle riders, and others engaged in dangerous activities. The Snell Foundation discovered that resilient or bouncy lining materials actually transmitted the force of contact with a hard object to the wearer's skull. The solution was to use non-resilient materials that absorbed the forces of a crash and did not rebound. Earnhardt's helmet was state of the art in helmet construction in 1998. Its lining crushed and did not rebound. After even the slightest blow, the helmet would be replaced with a new one.
In the 2001 crash, Earnhardt's head snapped forward violently, breaking his neck. The death of NASCAR's brightest star at that time led to the adoption of the "Hans device," which supports the head and does not allow it to snap forward in a crash. NASCAR's new chassis, the "Car of Tomorrow," adopted in 2007, also was designed to give drivers added crash protection.
Currently on loan
Object Name
Date made
Earnhardt, Dale
Physical Description
hard plastic (helmet material)
synthetic fabric (lining material)
vinyl (part material)
metal (part material)
overall: 26 cm x 23 cm x 30 cm; 10 1/4 in x 9 1/16 in x 11 13/16 in
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Credit Line
Gift of Dale Earnhardt
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Data Source
National Museum of American History
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