Veteran stock car driver Neil Bonnett crashed head-on into a concrete wall, his crumpled car sliding down the track before coming to a stop alone in the straightaway of Daytona International Speedway last February.

Three days later, Rodney Orr’s car went airborne and flipped, snapping a caution light in a remote back turn as the rookie prepared for his first big competition in racing’s major leagues.

Both died.

Officials of the sport’s ruling body put them in the record book as drivers who caused their own deaths.

An investigation by The Orlando Sentinel has found that a broken, $3 part led to Orr’s death. And a source says the same part was broken on Bonnett’s car.

The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing’s explanation for the crashes? At the time, it said only that Bonnett and Orr overcorrected as they navigated steep turns during practice runs.

The newspaper, with help from experts in metals and in high-performance vehicles, found in a four-month investigation that in both accidents, NASCAR officials failed to test the tires and other critical car parts, interview crew members or do any other in-depth probe. After holding the cars for no more than half a day, NASCAR returned them to the teams.

The Sentinel also found that:

NASCAR, after saying Bonnett’s driving had caused his wreck, quietly retracted its finding shortly after the crash amid objections from champion driver Dale Earnhardt and Bonnett’s family. But NASCAR still has not said what caused the wreck. Any chance of discovering the cause is gone because the car was destroyed shortly after the crash.

Racing tires built by Hoosier did not contribute to Orr’s wreck, as drivers and owners suggested after the crash. At the time of their deaths, Orr and Bonnett were using Hoosier tires, which in recent years has been challenging Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in recent years for a bigger share of the racing market. In tests commissioned by the Sentinel, Standards Testing Laboratories of Massillon, Ohio, found that Orr’s tires met all construction, design and compound standards.

NASCAR’s cursory investigations are not unusual. In the past 20 years, eight drivers have been killed and another is in a coma after crashes in the Winston Cup Series, stock-car racing’s elite level. In all those cases, NASCAR routinely conducted short examinations, released the wreckage to owners and seldom conducted in-depth interviews with crew members who prepared the cars for the race.

Its practices mean problems that cause fatal crashes may be overlooked and other drivers may be in danger.

In Orr’s death, the part that failed was a 3-inch, screw-like piece – called a stud – that held the right rear shock absorber to the car, according to experts hired by the newspaper. Without the shock absorber locked firmly into place, the car could bounce drastically out of control.

Richard Petty, who has won more races than any other driver in Winston Cup history, said controlling a car when the part snaps is impossible. The car “would go straight into the wall,” he said. “It’s like the right rear falling out from under you.”

Both an engineer and a metal expert hired by the Sentinel found that the stud on Orr’s car was cracked long before the wreck.

They said the metal used in the part was too weak for the demands of racing at speeds up to 200 mph.

The same broken part also may have caused Bonnett’s wreck.

A NASCAR source, who requested anonymity because of his working relationship with NASCAR, examined Bonnett’s car after the crash and said the Chevrolet Lumina also had a broken shock-absorber mounting stud.

He said several NASCAR officials also looked at the wreckage and that a NASCAR attorney was told of the broken parts on both cars.

NASCAR declined repeated requests for interviews, saying it would have no comment on the newspaper’s findings. It declined to answer any questions pertaining to the deaths of Bonnett and Orr or to explain its procedures for investigating fatal racing accidents.

With its huge crowds, major sponsors and TV revenues, NASCAR has become a half-billion-dollar-a-year industry and is considered one of the most powerful ruling bodies in all of sports. NASCAR can influence which companies sell equipment to teams, determine which drivers can race in its competitions and decide where races are held.

While critics, including some crew and family members of dead drivers, say NASCAR needs to do more to make the sport safer, others say the racing teams themselves should bear most of that responsibility.

“When there’s a fatal accident, that’s it,” said Petty, now owner of the stock car driven by Wally Dallenbach. “If you prove somebody was negligent, that doesn’t help anybody.”

Deadly weekend

Bonnett’s death on Feb. 11 and Orr’s on Feb. 14 made this year’s Daytona 500 the deadliest weekend in Winston Cup history. Bonnett was 47; Orr was 31. Only 24 other drivers have died in the sport since 1952.

Orr died on a turn where few people were in a position to see it. There are no known video tapes or still photos of Orr’s crash. Bonnett’s wreck is recorded in just a few frames from a fan’s video camera.

Other cars, oil slicks and wind were ruled out as the cause. NASCAR blamed driver error. And the racers’ families fumed.

“I question the so-called, driver-error finding,” said David Bonnett, a Busch Grand National driver and Neil’s 29-year-old son. “People knew it wasn’t that. It upset my mother, and then they (NASCAR officials) retracted it.”

Crystal Orr, Rodney’s widow, is just as adamant: “I can tell you this: We know it wasn’t anything Rodney did.”

Buddy Crosby, a crew member, said wear on the car’s tires proves Orr followed NASCAR’s instructions on what to do when a car goes onto the shoulder: He locked his brakes and turned the steering wheel sharply toward the infield, away from the wall.

“Rodney knew what to do,” Crosby said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that’s what he did.”

Hoping to determine the cause, the Orrs made his car available for testing by the Sentinel.

The newspaper obtained the help of two faculty members from the University of Central Florida in Orlando: Robert Hoekstra, an assistant professor of engineering who does research involving race cars, and Vimal Desai, a metals expert who has done work for NASA. Hoekstra also has competed in auto racing since he was a teen-ager.

Hoekstra found that the broken shock stud made the right rear shock absorber dangle uselessly from the car, meaning there was nothing to keep the car from bouncing along the track much like a pogo stick. He said the stud – already weakened by the crack – most likely continued cracking because the locknut that holds it firmly in place was loose. Such locknuts are never supposed to be loosened, even when a shock absorber is routinely changed, Hoekstra said.

The part – even with its crack – probably would have lasted for an entire race or even longer if it had been securely fastened to the car, Hoekstra said.

Orr’s crew members say they don’t know why the nut was not tightened.

Desai said the crack likely started because of a flaw in the metal. For that reason, the experts said NASCAR should investigate to see if cracking is a common problem. And if it is, they said, the parts should be thoroughly inspected before each race and must be made of stronger steel.

Orr was moving up

When Orr entered the Daytona 500 earlier this year, he had spent 2 1/2 years in the Goody’s Dash Series, a lower-level racing division for four-cylinder, sub-compact cars. After winning the circuit’s points championship in 1993, he decided to move up to the Winston Cup circuit, the major leagues of stock-car racing.

In making his move to racing’s big time, Orr skipped two intermediate racing levels. In December he paid $65,000 for a powerful, eight-cylinder Ford Thunderbird that was practically new. He began testing it in January.

There was no reason for Orr to suspect that the shock absorber part was cracked, even as he pushed the 700-horsepower engine to speeds of more than 190 mph during test drives.

“You could not drive the car at those speeds if you were having handling problems,” Hoekstra said.

In February, Orr and his crew were back at Daytona getting ready for the 500, the season-opening event. By then, the car was handling poorly, or “kind of squirrely,” as Crystal Orr recalled her husband saying.

That probably was because between January and February the locknut holding the right rear shock absorber was loose, Hoekstra said. Moreover, the locknut holding the other rear shock also was loose.

Crosby, Orr’s top mechanic during his Dash-series days, said he and Orr personally had tightened every nut, bolt and clamp before they towed the car from their garage in Bunnell to the speedway.

Mark Tutor, a race mechanic from North Carolina whom Orr hired to make adjustments to the car, said he didn’t loosen the nuts.

“Everybody had something to do with that car,” Tutor said. “If it was loose, somebody left it loose. Who are you going to blame?”

On Feb. 14, Orr took some practice runs, reaching speeds of more than 183 mph.

By his 14th lap, the cracked part had reached the breaking point. It snapped, turning Orr’s car into a missile. The car went airborne, flipped upside down and landed on the retaining wall in Turn 2.

“If it had been Earnhardt, he couldn’t have stopped it,” said Beacher Orr, Rodney’s father and the car’s co-owner, referring to race car driver Dale Earnhardt, one of the most highly regarded veterans on the circuit.

Petty and others agreed that when the part broke – with no warning – it would have sent the car out of control.

“It goes to flopping up and down in the air,” veteran driver Morgan Shepherd said.

Others, however, disagree.

“If the mount breaks, it’s not a problem,” said James Finch, owner of Bonnett’s car. “It’s not going to catapult him into the wall.”

Finch says a car with such a broken part would merely drag on the track, but that the driver would be able to keep it under control.

Light springs used

As for Bonnett’s wreck, Finch and his crew chief, Johnny Allen, said they have no idea what caused Bonnett’s car to slide out of control and into the wall. Finch said the car had been used only in testing. When told that a NASCAR source said a mounting stud on Bonnett’s car was broken, Finch said that was untrue. “Everything was perfect” on the car, he said.

However, the NASCAR source who saw the car after the accident said he believes the stud broke because the springs on the car were about half the weight normally used at Daytona. If that’s the case, then the springs might have been too light to support the weight of the race car in the turns of the 2.5-mile, tri-oval track, causing his car to bottom out, eventually breaking the shock mounting stud.

Many drivers acknowledged they were experimenting with light springs at Daytona because NASCAR this year required changes in car body designs with the intention of increasing wind resistance and slowing speeds. Lighter springs help offset those changes by making the car lower to the ground and more aerodynamic. They also make the car harder to handle.

Drivers said that for races at Daytona, the cars normally are equipped with springs that are 400-500 pounds per inch of height. Hoekstra said the springs on Orr’s wreckage were within that range.

But Ronnie Sanders, who has raced at Daytona since 1981, blames his decision to use lighter 175-pound springs as the reason his car hit the wall during a practice run for this year’s race.

Before the rule changes, drivers had not experimented much with light springs at Daytona, Sanders said. This year, he said the experimentation “was extreme.”

Finch said Bonnett’s car had springs that were lighter than normal, 275-300 pounds. But he said that did not cause Bonnett’s wreck.

Bonnett’s death came as the veteran was trying to re-enter stock-car racing’s top level. He had become a favorite of Winston Cup fans and had compiled 18 victories on the circuit by 1990. But in September of that year he suffered severe head injuries when he crashed at South Carolina’s Darlington International Speedway. Doctors persuaded him to retire.

But Bonnett couldn’t stay away. He competed in two races in 1993 and had committed to a six-race schedule this season, beginning with the Daytona 500.

To this day, family and friends say they do not know what caused his wreck. But, like many in the racing community, they aren’t dwelling on it.

“There’s no sense worrying about what caused it,” David Bonnett said. “That’s not going to bring him back.”

The Orrs have found solace in knowing what happened.

“It’s reality. This is the part NASCAR doesn’t like,” Crystal Orr said. “Maybe they can live with not knowing, but I can’t.”

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