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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Dale Earnhardt’s loss of life: NASCAR’s tragic Daytona 500 remembered

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I’m unsure what surprises me extra – that it’s 20 years since Dale Earnhardt died or that I’ve been overlaying NASCAR racing even longer than that.

A lot has occurred in NASCAR since I started overlaying the game regularly in April 1998 that it’s usually laborious to recollect many particulars about any specific race weekend.

Oh, I’ll bear in mind who received a race, or a very unhealthy wreck or typically it might be one thing completely off the wall, like the large Tropicana Orange that rolled onto the monitor at Chicagoland Speedway in 2004 throughout a qualifying session.

However I – and I’m positive everybody else who was part of it – bear in mind a lot extra from that day. The day Dale Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash within the 2001 Daytona 500.

Dale Earnhardt’s deadly crash

Photograph by: F. Peirce Williams / Motorsport Images

It was solely my third time overlaying the Daytona 500 for The Charlotte Observer. Again then, The Observer had two beat writers who lined NASCAR – the late David Poole and myself. The paper would additionally typically ship down not less than one photographer and a columnist for the weekend of the five hundred.

I bear in mind going to the monitor that day with nice anticipation.

For one, Dodge was returning to the Cup Sequence for the primary time in 16 years and their drivers had swept the entrance row in 500 qualifying with Invoice Elliott on the pole.

It was additionally the primary race for NASCAR’s new $2.4 billion six-year tv package deal which concerned Fox Sports activities, FX, NBC and Turner Sports activities.

Having not lined the game very lengthy, it was laborious for to me to totally grasp how this deal would change the game, nevertheless it appeared everybody I interviewed main as much as the five hundred that yr felt it might be a monumental turning level for NASCAR.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip

Photograph by: Dave Dalesandro

There have been different tales making a “buzz” – reminiscent of Michael Waltrip gaining a brand new fulltime Cup trip with Dale Earnhardt Inc. (above); Kurt Busch shifting as much as Cup from Vans with Roush Racing; and it was the primary season since 1971 with out three-time NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip as a competitor as he had moved to the Fox Sports activities broadcast sales space.

Within the days earlier than the five hundred, I bear in mind attending a really elaborate press perform at a lodge on the seaside during which then-Busch Sequence driver Kevin Harvick was launched as future teammate of Earnhardt and Mike Skinner within the Cup Sequence.

Harvick was scheduled to run a handful of races in 2001 with America On-line as sponsor after which change into the fulltime driver of the No. 30 Chevrolet at Richard Childress Racing in 2002. I nonetheless bear in mind the piles of laptop luggage and America On-line web entry CDs – a scorching merchandise then – given away that night time.

Dale Earnhardt leads the field

Dale Earnhardt leads the sector

Photograph by: Sutton Pictures

Race day

I discovered rapidly on this job that race day visitors was horrible and myself and Poole arrived round 8 a.m. on the day of the five hundred. It was a ravishing day, heat and fairly breezy. One of the best a part of race days is at all times arriving with out the priority unhealthy climate might postpone the occasion.

I appeared to recollect spending lots of time being attentive to the pre-race present on TV, largely to see how Fox was going to introduce its first race of its new contract, which additionally occurred to be the largest race of the season.

The race itself I recall to be a really aggressive one with a number of completely different drivers capable of stay out entrance to guide. Whereas the Dodges had been regarded as missing velocity main as much as the race, Sterling Marlin and Ward Burton clearly had two of the quickest vehicles that day.

Dale Earnhardt leads Jeff Gordon in 2001 Daytona 500

Dale Earnhardt leads Jeff Gordon in 2001 Daytona 500

Photograph by: F. Peirce Williams / Motorsport Images

Burton would get caught up in a large accident on Lap 173 that collected almost 20 vehicles and despatched driver Tony Stewart to close by Halifax Medical Heart after flipping his No. 20 Chevrolet on the backstretch.

Because the race wound to a detailed the Chevrolets of Michael Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Earnhardt Sr. had discovered their option to the entrance and had been desperately attempting to fend off a ultimate cost by Marlin to win the race.

Working within the infield media middle, I ready to go to pit highway after which the storage on the race’s conclusion – my typical function when each Poole and I labored a race.

There have been so many cool storylines I assumed to myself – Waltrip on the lookout for his first-ever sequence win, Earnhardt Jr. within the combine, Earnhardt Sr. presumably incomes a second Daytona 500 victory or Dodge finishing a whirlwind return in its first race weekend again in NASCAR’s greatest sequence.

Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash

Dale Earnhardt’s deadly crash

Photograph by: F. Peirce Williams / Motorsport Images

Because it turned out, standing close to pit highway, I caught a glimpse of a wreck on the final lap at Flip 4 between two vehicles, one in every of which I acknowledged as Ken Schrader’s. Seeking to the beginning/end line, I noticed Michael Waltrip take the checkered flag with Earnhardt Jr. and the banged-up Ford of Rusty Wallace shut behind.

Ready for the sector to return to a cease on pit highway, I caught a replay of the ultimate lap at one of many pit bins and heard a number of crew guys speaking about Schrader and Earnhardt Sr. getting collectively. The replay confirmed a tough hit, however in my comparatively temporary expertise on the time, I had seen way more vicious wrecks.

Solely the yr earlier than, I had been on the monitor when driver Kenny Irwin Jr. had died in a wreck at New Hampshire and I lined the deaths of drivers Tony Roper in a Truck race at Texas and Adam Petty, additionally in a wreck at New Hampshire.

Dale Earnhardt crash

Dale Earnhardt crash

Photograph by: F. Peirce Williams / Motorsport Images

Silent aftermath

I didn’t suppose at first there was something notably severe about this accident however in my quick time as a motorsports journalist I had studying nothing spoke louder at a race monitor than silence.

The extra folks I noticed after the race, the quieter everybody gave the impression to be. Drivers and crew members appeared uncertain of what to say, or even when to say something. No one was saying why – it simply appeared everybody knew one thing wasn’t proper.

A cellphone name from Poole, who labored within the press field, let me know Earnhardt Sr. had not but exited his No. 3 Chevrolet and it appeared security staff had been going to extricate him from his automobile.

Dale Earnhardt crash

Dale Earnhardt crash

Photograph by: F. Peirce Williams / Motorsport Images

That definitely was not signal. I returned to the infield media middle to start engaged on a pair tales I deliberate to write down about Earnhardt Jr. and Wallace but in addition reached out to sources to see if anybody had an concept how severe the accident could also be.

Whereas sitting within the media middle, I bear in mind I had reached out earlier to a good friend of mine who labored with Stewart to test on his situation, as he had been taken to the hospital after the sooner wreck.

My cellphone rang and it was him. He was nonetheless on the hospital and he instructed me Stewart could be OK however he additionally instructed me he had one thing else to share. They had been there when Earnhardt had been delivered to the hospital and that he had died.

Dale Earnhardt ambulance after his crash

Dale Earnhardt ambulance after his crash

Photograph by: F. Peirce Williams / Motorsport Images

With out considering, I simply blurted out, “What?” I do know my colleagues round me heard me. I assured my good friend that we’d not be writing something till somebody made an official announcement however thanked him for the heads up.

I fired off a message to Poole of what I had been instructed and after I completed and regarded up, my close by colleagues checked out me with puzzlement. I instructed them to observe me out the entrance door, the place I merely stated: “Earnhardt’s lifeless. Simply prepare to write down.”

For the subsequent hour or so, it appeared like no one knew what to do. All of us appeared to know what had occurred, however till somebody formally confirmed it, there wasn’t something to do about it.

NASCAR officers had locked the chain-linked storage gate entrance instantly adjoining to the media middle. Increasingly media members gave the impression to be filling the already crowded confines of the media middle, together with a slew of TV cameras. Folks had been simply standing round, ready, however not precisely positive for what.

Then, round 6:30 or 7 p.m., NASCAR President Mike Helton arrived on the media middle and addressed the group. It was a brief assertion, however I’ll always remember his final phrases: “We’ve misplaced Dale Earnhardt.”

I bear in mind two issues proper after that – the shocked silence of the room and the best way Helton’s voice cracked as he stated these final phrases.

Slowly the noise started to select up within the media middle and everybody started getting again to work – writing not solely about Michael Waltrip ending a 0-for-462 winless streak but in addition the premature loss of life of his automobile proprietor, Dale Earnhardt, on the identical day.

The following a number of hours had been a blur – writing quite a few tales, planning for extra within the days forward, coordinating with different Observer reporters who had been engaged on tales again in Charlotte, determining journey preparations as follow-up press conferences had been scheduled.

Fans hold up three fingers on the 3rd lap to remember Dale Earnhardt ten years after he died

Followers maintain up three fingers on the third lap to recollect Dale Earnhardt ten years after he died

Photograph by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

The best way forward

I don’t know after I lastly walked again to my automobile within the media parking zone that night time, however I do bear in mind discovering it notably laborious to understand the whole lot that had transpired throughout that day.

The spectacle of NASCAR racing had by no means appeared bigger to me when the day began. It appeared just like the daybreak of a brand new age within the sport.

Because it turned out, it was – and in lots of surprising methods.

NASCAR’s TV deal did assist launch itself into mainstream skilled sports activities however with it got here the scrutiny of mainstream media over the loss of life of one in every of its greatest stars.

The deaths of three NASCAR drivers in 2000 appeared at first to go with few adjustments however Earnhardt’s loss of life triggered a metamorphosis of tradition and growth by way of driver security.

Kevin Harvick

Kevin Harvick

Photograph by: Richard Sloop

Careers had been modified endlessly, like Kevin Harvick (above), who went from obscure Busch Sequence driver to Earnhardt’s alternative within the Cup Sequence within the span of about 48 hours.

Hundreds of thousands of NASCAR followers misplaced a favourite. Some selected one other whereas others might have by no means watched once more.

It’s been 20 years since Dale Earnhardt died and a lot has modified. What’s going to by no means change is how a lot Earnhardt’s loss of life modified NASCAR and all of us who work in it.

Race fan paid tribute to Dale Earnhardt

Race fan paid tribute to Dale Earnhardt

Photograph by: Sutton Pictures



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