Order delays Earnhardt investigation

Posted: Thursday, May 10, 2001

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- A police investigation into Dale Earnhardt's death might be hindered by a court order preventing access to autopsy photos of the racing legend.

Daytona Beach Police might have to go to court to get the photos, which were taken by the Volusia County's Medical Examiner's Office.

Circuit Judge Joseph Will issued the order Feb. 22, four days after Earnhardt's death at the Daytona 500. The order seals not only autopsy photos, but also photos of the inside of Earnhardt's wrecked No. 3 Chevrolet.

''I have recently turned down NASCAR, The Orlando Sentinel, The National Enquirer and the Daytona Beach Police Department,'' said Dave Byron, a county spokesman who is handling photo and records requests made to the medical examiner.

''No one can get photos of the car or the autopsy without the judge's permission.''

Byron said county attorneys forwarded the request to Will. A message left at the judge's office Wednesday morning was not immediately returned.

Police Detective Sgt. Steve Szabo asked the Medical Examiner's Office for the photos Monday, saying he needed them ''for furtherance of his official duties.''

Police spokesman Sgt. Al Tolley said Tuesday that Szabo thought he could easily obtain the photos. When informed of the judge's order, Tolley said police attorneys would get involved if needed.

Earnhardt lawyer Ernest Eubanks said he did not think the judge's order was supposed to seal anything but the autopsy photos. He said he had no objection to police obtaining photos of the car.

In the days following Earnhardt's death, his widow asked for the autopsy records to be sealed, saying she feared the photos would be made public over the Internet.

In March, lawyers for the Sentinel and the Earnhardt family reached an agreement letting the independent expert study the photos, but other requests to see the photos have been blocked.

Meanwhile, the attorney for a seat belt manufacturer who believed his product had been unfairly blamed for Earnhardt's death said the dispute with NASCAR would be ''resolved in a friendly way.''

After Earnhardt's crash, NASCAR reported that a broken seat belt made by Bill Simpson's company was discovered in the car and might have played a role in the driver's death. The news resulted in at least one racing team dropping Simpson as a supplier, and angry racing fans sent Simpson death and bomb threats.

pioneer death: In Daytona Beach, Fla., Henry ''Smokey'' Yunick, one of the key innovators from stock car racing's early days, died of leukemia Wednesday. He was 77.

Yunick helped develop Chevrolet's original small-block engine in 1955, the blueprints of which are still used on today's cars.

He was the last owner to win at Daytona when they raced on the beach, in 1958. He fielded winners at the 1961 and '62 Daytona 500s and won four of the first eight Winston Cup races at Daytona International Speedway.

''He was about as good as there ever was on engines,'' said Marvin Panch, who won the Daytona 1961 in Yunick's car. ''He was a pioneer.'

The International Motorsports Hall of Fame inducted him in 1990, and called him a ''sly mechanical genius whose reputation as one of the premier mechanics in NASCAR hasn't diminished over the years.''

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