Has it been 20 years since we lost NASCAR Hall of Fame and larger-than-life driver Dale Earnhardt? Twenty? Two decades?
The answer, unfortunately, is yes.
On this day in 2001, as Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. were screeching out of Turn 4 at Daytona International Speedway on the final lap of the Daytona 500, a sport-changing moment was taking place right behind them.
The iconic and ever-watched No. 3 Chevrolet was striking the wall with their boss, Dale Earnhardt, driving. At first, it didn’t seem like an typical wreck witnessed so many times there before. We had seen Dale flip over on the backstretch of Daytona, get into an ambulance, get out and get back in the damaged car and return to action.
The first indication something was amiss was when the window net didn’t come down after the car came to rest in the grass. The second was when Kenny Schrader, also involved, went to check on Dale and started to frantically wave for emergency personal.
An ambulance ride with Dale inside followed as dusk set over the track, a Victory Lane celebration muted, images of him being worked on by paramedics while being wheeled into the hospital followed.
Uncertainty, speculation, prayers and hope took over.
At that time, I was a writer for NASCAR.com and it was our first race under the AOL Time Warner ownership. I was in Atlanta at the CNN offices covering the race weekend as an online in-race reporter, plus writing stories.
One of my colleagues’, Dave Rodman, wife worked at the Halifax Medical Center and called to let him know we had lost Dale. He and Marty Smith, then with NASCAR.com, communicated the information back to us. Nothing had been made official yet.
“Unbelievable, No Way and What?!” were the first reactions. Then, others in the Media Center started to find out before the official announcement.
We started writing and creating the post-race story of Waltrip winning his first Cup race, his Dale Earnhardt, Inc. teammate, Earnhardt, Jr. finishing second. Later, the words by then NASCAR President Mike Helton that brought tears from reporters, crew members, fans and a nation were uttered.
“After the accident in Turn 4 of the Daytona 500, we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt,” with watered eyes and a slight shake in his voice.
Larger than imagined
When we got done posting our stories, the human factor had taken over. Covering this sport on a weekly basis where the asphalt circus of NASCAR travels together for 30+ weekends, one can’t help to form relationships that go beyond the track.
Even while covering races before 2001, you’d glance at the Media Center scoring monitor to see where Dale was running. Just to check and, because he could create a story at any minute.
Knowing I had to get back to Mooresville, I left Atlanta that night. It seemed darker than normal outside as I drove up I-85.
“Dale Earnhardt is really gone? Superman doesn’t die? What now? This is awful in so, so many ways…it can’t be,” were my thoughts while driving. This just wasn’t happening.
It was late and I stopped at a hotel about halfway back. Drained mentally more than physically, I went down to grab breakfast in the morning and everyone, and I mean EVERYONE was glued to the TV. On all major networks, broadcast and cable, the top story was the death of Dale Earnhardt. Not that it wasn’t worthy, but some of these outlets never touched upon anything in our sport.
It was then I realized just how big this event was going to become, grabbed some things to go and headed back to Mooresville, NC.
In the days that followed, Dale was on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated magazines, to name a few. Flags flew at half staff across the nation in his honor.
This was becoming more than a NASCAR news story, it was the beginning of something with epic proportions.
Bankers, bikers, blue collars bawling
I was asked to head out to Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and do a live shot for CNN-SI and CNN from outside the shop on Monday.
The last time there I was for the annual Media Tour in January. The tour put on by Charlotte Motor Speedway was where members of the media were bused from shop-to-shop for a visit with owners, drivers and crew chiefs. Major sponsor announcements were made while some of us took bets on how many times the word “excited” was going to be uttered.
One of the favorite stops was DEI because one, it was Dale and now Dale Jr. and two, because the Garage Mahal was spectacular to visit. During some on-on-one time, Dale stood by his black No. 3 Chevrolet and answered questions.
Mine was, “What have you been doing in the off-season to enjoy and relax?” He looked at me, right friggen at me with those piercing eyes… and I froze. I don’t know why, I had talked to and been around him before.
But this time, his eyes lit up as he gushed about his new grandbaby, Karsyn, and the time he was spending with her. His look of joy was good to see, instead of the usual intimidating one.
It was also the last time I would see him in person.
Upon returning on Feb. 19, there was heavy traffic with police directing the flow with light up signs pointing to parking areas across the street. Satellite and TV trucks were crammed nose-to-tail on the roadway in front of DEI with TV cameras and reporters lined the entire length in the grass.
And people…there were people everywhere…all kinds of them.
I witnessed some in shirts and ties, others in leathers and headbands, with more in jeans, Earnhardt T-shirts and ball caps standing by the fence line. They brought photos, drawings, flowers, balloons, cards, cards and more flowers.
They stood there sobbing…wiping away tears…and kneeling in prayer – together. Dale touched upon all walks of life and everyone found something to bond with him, a part of themselves they saw in him they could cheer for every race.
And now, it was gone as they gathered with each other in this time of despair and hurt.
His legacy lives on
After months of studies, the determination of his death was basal skull fracture. While the initial impact didn’t look devastating, the angle of impact was a major deciding factor.
From there, drivers now have full-containment seats, the cockpits and side bars of cars have been enhanced and the mandatory use of SAFER Barriers at every NASCAR track is now in place. HANS Devices, full-face helmets, improved belts, upgraded fire suits and enhanced safety standards are also the norm.
Safety has become even more paramount and thanks in part to those initiatives, it has helped prevent a NASCAR on-track fatality since Feb 18, 2001.
To this day, Dale is still referred to by just his first name or nickname of The Intimidator. Every race has No. 3 flags flying on an infield camper, T-shirts of him with the shades and mustache are worn and the adulation is still present.
While newer fans of NASCAR didn’t get to see the magic of Dale behind the wheel, the stories are uttered in reverent tones and memories shared by those that did witness him race still make an impression. Videos of old races and great finishes are still watched keeping sentiments for “their driver” going, and the legacy growing.
Dale Earnhardt, Inc. is a shell of itself with 100s of former employees left to reconnect for sharing of their greatest thoughts and memories. I was fortunate to work there from 2002 to 2006 hearing Dale Tales and realizing what made him so special to so many, on and off the track.
To some, February 18 is just another day on the calendar. For many others, it’s the day the face of NASCAR left us with heavy hearts, great stories and memories to last a lifetime.
Dale Earnhardt, you forced us to make an unexpected and sudden goodbye 20 years ago today. But, you didn’t stop millions from keeping you living on in their hearts and memory.