DAYTONA BEACH, Fla._ Today marks the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s tragic and unexpected death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. A myriad of stories have been flowing from drivers, the media and fans this week remembering the late titan of stock car racing, and I would be remised if I did not offer my memories, not only of the man but of that fateful day.
While many reporters and industry insiders have talked of being at the track and witnessing the confusion that unfolded firsthand, I was still a junior in high school and watching at home surrounded by my family, dreaming of one day doing what I am now able to do. Yet, as that day 10 years ago unfolded and the severity of the incident began to set it I knew things would never be the same for NASCAR.
Growing up, I was a fan of Rusty Wallace and thus had little care of the ‘Man in Black’ since he was my driver’s biggest rival. It was no strange sight for someone in our house to yell at the television screen when Earnhardt did something to one of our drivers. In fact, when Earnhardt sent Rusty flipping at Talladega in 1993, my grandmother found herself in the hospital with chest pains after screaming at Earnhardt.
I met Dale Earnhardt only once. It was at a Chevrolet dealership in rural Pennsylvania in 1999. I skipped school the week of final exams to sit in the rain completely surrounded by Earnhardt fans. There I was, decked out in a Rusty Wallace t-shirt and hat, going back and forth with the best – and worst – of his fans herded into the garage bays of this dealership. As I got to Earnhardt he was sitting there, looking down as I handed him my 1998 yearbook to sign the picture of him holding the Daytona 500 trophy. He took the book and glanced up as I stood there donned in all Wallace garb – it was enough to make ‘The Intimidator’ look twice, something I still take pride in.
Anyway, back to that fateful day. That morning just happened to be my cousin’s First Holy Communion at church. Always a special day, it was also the morning of the Daytona 500 and church never took longer it seemed. After all was said and done it was back to our house where the family celebrated their achievement and I quickly tuned into FOX’s first NASCAR broadcast.
The racing that day was intense, wild and exciting. Then came the frightful incident that saw Tony Stewart flying through the air as cars wrecked wildly below him. We held our breaths, as many did, to wait and see if Stewart would climb from his mangled car that landed on teammate Bobby Labonte. Watching the replays, I couldn’t help but notice how Earnhardt just missed the ‘Big One’ – it seemed like he always did.
Back racing, it was great to see Michael Waltrip working with Dale Earnhardt Jr. as they worked to finish off what had been a strong showing for the DEI teammates. We had met Waltrip at one of the first races we went to as a family in 1991 in Dover and my mom had pulled for him ever since. Behind them, it was clear Earnhardt was doing all he could to hold the pack off, Wallace included. With Darrell Waltrip calling the final laps in the booth, it was emotional to watch as we anticipated another great Daytona 500 finish.
Then Earnhardt wrecked and the No. 15 and No. 8 took the checkered flag. We watched as Ken Schrader exited his wrecked car and walked to Earnhardt’s expecting some sort of confrontation, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Schrader waved to the rescue workers and quickly moved out the way. Right there it was clear something was wrong.
After Victory Lane and the post-race interviews, it became even more evident when FOX used wide overhead shots of the wreckage and the massive number of rescue vehicle gathered in Turn 4. It wasn’t that bad of a wreck was it? Heck, remember when he and Bill Elliott wrecked at Talladega a few years ago, that was a bad wreck and he had walked away from that. These were the conversations going on in our living room that day. Then came the shot of the ambulance driving away from the speedway at a snail’s pace. That is when I knew something was definitely wrong.
Being that day was the same day as my cousin’s First Holy Communion, we were quickly off to their house for dinner after the race, left without answers and wondering what was happening to Dale Earnhardt. Ignoring most of my family for the majority of the evening, I sat on my uncle’s computer refreshing NASCAR.com every minute or so, waiting for some sort of news. Then it came. Dale Earnhardt was gone.
I may have never been a fan of his, I may have booed him extensively and cheered when he had troubles, but he was still the best driver in NASCAR and seemed invincible. Yet there was the news, Dale Earnhardt had died. The words spoken by Mike Helton that day seemed to be a bad dream and I was just a fan sitting in my aunt and uncle’s house in New Jersey.
One year later I was in Daytona for my first Daytona 500. Knowing what had happened 12 months prior it was a special moment I was able to share with my aunt Joyce. While we were not there that fateful day, we would honor Earnhardt on Lap 3 by raising our three fingers and watching in silence as the pack roared past without him.
I was later given a picture that hangs in my office to this day. It is of Michael Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Sr. sitting in their cars waiting for the red flag to be lifted following Stewart’s accident. I often look at that photograph and think what could have been had Earnhardt been collected in that incident and taken out prior to the final lap.
Now that I am at the track on a regular basis, working among many of the media that was here that day and covered the tragedy firsthand, it is humbling to think back on that day 10 years ago. There is no one in the sport that was not affected by the events of February 18, 2001 and each has his or her own story to tell, thank you for letting me share mine. I encourage you to share your memories of that day and ask you to take a moment today to reflect on how much Dale meant to the sport.
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