TSN Archives: Remembering Dale Earnhardt’s deadly crash at Daytona 20 years later

This article was printed within the Feb. 26, 2001 problem of The Sporting News.

Black Sunday

Dale Earnhardt, essentially the most acknowledged driver in NASCAR, died at Daytona doing what he did greatest — pushing his race automobile to the restrict

By Lee Spencer

I walked previous the driving force’s window of the No. 3 Chevrolet, and Dale Earnhardt waved, winked and flashed that unforgettable, mischievous, mustached smile.

Strapped tightly into his legendary black automobile and carrying the open-faced helmet he most popular for consolation’s sake, Earnhardt was relaxed and affable final Sunday as he waited on the beginning grid for his 23 rd Daytona 500.

Never for a second did I believe it might be my final glimpse of his acquainted face.

Earnhardt, the driving force who gained extra races than every other at Daytona, the driving force who amassed seven Winston Cup titles and 76 wins over a 25-year profession — the driving force who was husband to Teresa and father to Kerry, Kelly, Dale Jr. and Taylor Nicole — by no means made it to the end line. He left the observe in an ambulance, fatally injured.

On the ultimate lap, the person who understood the draft higher than anybody else, backed off the lead pack behind Michael Waltrip and Dale Jr. to dam the oncoming assault from Sterling Marlin, Ken Schrader and Rusty Wallace. Earnhardt knew that taking his opponents three-wide would open the door for Waltrip and Junior to battle for the victory.

This wasn’t the Dale Earnhardt who many instances mentioned that on a race observe his son was simply one other competitor. This wasn’t the Dale Earnhardt who mentioned he most likely would bump Junior’s No. 8 out of the best way if the black No. 3 had an opportunity to win. This was the last word act of selflessness from a driver who started the season with the deep-seated perception he would win his eighth Winston Cup championship.


That act of selflessness may need value him his life.

Marlin, with a good chance to interrupt a 149-race winless streak if he may get previous Earnhardt, was doing his greatest to make a transfer. Earnhardt was doing his greatest to carry him off. As the automobiles roared into Turn 4, they bumped, and the No. 3 careened uncontrolled and hit the concrete retaining wall with brutal affect.

On the radio, silence.

Richard Childress, Earnhardt’s staff proprietor since 1984 and his good friend earlier than that, received no response to his anxious radio name to his driver’s headset. Childress despatched teammate Mike Skinner to the scene of the wreck. Still nothing. He radioed Teresa … to crew chief Kevin Hamlin … somebody, anybody, to get a solution, however nothing got here.

In victory lane, Michael Waltrip, the latest member of the staff Earnhardt owns, was celebrating his first Winston Cup win in 463 begins. The emotion between the brothers Waltrip — Darrell referred to as the race from the tv sales space — was the spotlight of the Fox broadcast.

No one knew that NASCAR’s foremost driver sat lifeless as paramedics struggled to chop him from his wrecked automobile, which had come to relaxation on the grass within the tri-oval portion of the observe. Earnhardt didn’t reply to efforts to revive him, and he was pronounced useless at 5:14 p.m. at close by Halifax Medical Center, the place he was taken by ambulance.

“NASCAR has lost its greatest driver ever, and I have lost a dear friend,” mentioned NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr.


As a younger man, Earnhardt’s potential was apparent to France. Recently, France talked from his coronary heart in regards to the contribution Earnhardt had made to the game that the France household based and much more in regards to the respect he had for Earnhardt as a person.

And subsequent to his father, Ralph, who died unexpectedly in 1973 earlier than attending to see his son race in Winston Cup, it was France whom Earnhardt admired most.

“He helped me grow,” Earnhardt mentioned final month. “He helped me understand the sport better. Bill has always been a great leader and a great philosopher. The interesting thing about Bill is that he doesn’t forget anything about people. He remembers a person’s name, who they are, what they do and what the said, for that matter … in 1940. He’s been there. He’s seen it. He’s been up against these situations, and he knows what to expect and how to handle it.”

Although it was Earnhardt who laid the groundwork for a formidable motorsports dynasty, it was “Billy’s” steerage that took the scruffy manufacturing facility employee from Kannapolis, N.C., and turned him right into a legend. Earnhardt’s spouse, Teresa, who knew him greatest, mentioned that a part of the success was promote “Earnhardt” the picture — The Intimidator, who was feared on and off the observe. Yet if Earnhardt revered somebody and gained their belief, one couldn’t ask for a more true good friend.

Earnhardt additionally was a NASCAR loyalist. Despite the security points, regardless of the uneven distribution of TV cash and regardless of any inequities among the many producers, Earnhardt refused to tarnish the title of the household or the game that made him.

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(SN Archives)

In an interview final month, Benny Parsons spoke of how a lot Earnhardt had developed and matured since becoming a member of Winston Cup ranks as a rookie in 1979.

“When he first came on the scene, I said he can’t pull off representing the big company,” Parsons mentioned. “And boy, was I wrong there. Then I said he can’t be consistent enough to win a championship — he’s too much of a hard charger, he runs too hard to win championships. And once again, I was wrong. He has been really, truly amazing with how he has grown as far as his ability to speak and get up in front of people and be very candid. He’s also been amazing on the racetrack.

“I think Earnhardt has more fans than any one driver. I wouldn’t dare say he has more than all the other drivers combined, but if you interviewed every fan that came through the gates for the Daytona 500 and they gave you an honest answer, I think Earnhardt would total up more than anyone else. Any time you have somebody that popular — like Richard Petty or David Pearson — then yes, they have a dramatic impact on the sport.”

Childress and Earnhardt have been simply two easy racers from North Carolina. Off the observe, they have been associates. The two hunted and fished and loved life. Childress typically mentioned their relationship was based mostly on “the tremendous respect” that they had for one another.

“It doesn’t matter what it is, he doesn’t like to lose,” Childress mentioned. “He just has a competitive nature. When you get down to the last 50 laps of a race, he knows how to dig deeper than any driver I know to make things happen.”


Earnhardt had a piece ethic second to none. He didn’t give handouts to his first three youngsters, selecting to share that very same lesson with them. Kerry and Junior needed to work at Earnhardt’s Chevrolet dealership and on their very own automobiles earlier than incomes the suitable to race — simply as Dad had. Earnhardt’s oldest daughter, Kelly, raced as nicely, however she is at present a profitable businesswoman with Action Performance, a racing collectibles enterprise. When Earnhardt spoke of Kelly’s new child daughter, a softness that was unmatched came to visit his face.

Finally, with 12-year-old Taylor Nicole, Earnhardt had an opportunity to be the daddy he didn’t have time to be to his different youngsters. It wasn’t uncommon when Earnhardt was on the town to see him decide up Taylor from college or take her trying to find deer on the household’s 300-acre farm in Mooresville, N.C.

When I talked to Earnhardt final month, he may hardly include his pleasure of discovering a classic 1988 Corvette for Taylor — the 12 months she was born. He spoke of the low miles on the automobile and the way it took him a 12 months to seek out simply the suitable one. She had a dream that “Daddy” had purchased her a automobile.

The subsequent day when she received residence from college, she and Dad took a spin across the farm in her new Corvette. Earnhardt pointed to the automobile and bragged about how Taylor already was turning into a fantastic little driver, how she parked the automobile completely on the showroom ground. Then he mentioned how proud he was of all his youngsters and the way far that they had come. He described the struggles of constructing Dale Earnhardt Inc., however he mentioned it was value it to make sure his youngsters’s future.

“In the grand scheme of things, it’s unique to have all this, but I feel that Dale Earnhardt Jr. one day will be able to step in and run all this, and hopefully Kelly and Kerry and Taylor will all be involved too,” Earnhardt mentioned. “They’ll all run this and race out of here and then do great. Hopefully after I retire from driving, I’ll be a great car owner for several years, then I can turn this over to the kids and let them run it and race on.”


Ned Jarrett, winner of fifty races over a 13-year profession in Winston Cup racing, says Earnhardt was a champ. “In my opinion, and I’ve said this many times, he was the best race-car driver that ever raced,” Jarrett says. “He had a tremendous amount of God-given talent, and he worked hard to get the most out of it. Everybody respected the man for what he could do with a race car.”

Jarrett says NASCAR doesn’t must delay or cancel the subsequent race, which is at Rockingham, out of respect for Earnhardt. “The world doesn’t stop because we lose somebody,” he says. “He wouldn’t want it that way. He would’ve wanted his son to be out there racing.”

Jarrett has seen quite a lot of lives misplaced throughout his involvement with the game. Earnhardt’s dying is the fourth in NASCAR sequence racing within the final 13 months. “It’s just so hard to accept they’re not there anymore,” Jarrett says. “When you lose someone who accomplished so much to get the sport where it is today, it’s tough. The man was dedicated to what he did. Every time he strapped himself into the race car, he went as hard as he could.”

Fans within the infield at the Daytona 500 have been in disbelief. “It’s awful,” mentioned Kimberly Bennett, an Earnhardt fan who, together with her dad, Neil, was wheeling away two memento tires from Earnhardt Jr.’s pit. “It makes your heart hurt, just thinking about it.”

“It’s put a shadow over this whole speedway,” Neil Bennett, 41, mentioned. “It’s a tremendous loss to motorsports.”

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(Getty Images)

Kimberly drives Legends sequence automobiles in her native Stockton, Ga., and lately had painted her No. 21 automobile to look precisely the identical as Earnhardt’s No. 3, right down to the black, white and purple paint job. “I liked the way he talked when he came out of the car,” says Kimberly, 15. “He always had something nice to say. And he was real competitive.”

Jarrett says NASCAR doesn’t must re-evaluate its security coverage. “NASCAR does a good job of doing what it can to make those racecars as safe as possible,” he says. “I guess you can only do so much. Certainly we’ve seen race cars torn up worse than his was and watched (the drivers) walk away. What safety measures could have prevented his death? I have no idea.”

Earnhardt had reached a stage in his life the place he was content material. He couldn’t combat center age, so he accepted it and approached it with a grace that comes from a confidence that few acquire.

“Life changes as you go through it,” he mentioned. “Sure you have to focus on different things at different times in your career. I’m 49 years old, and I’m pretty comfortable in life. Things don’t really rattle me when someone comes up and says you’re getting audited by the tax collector or you’re losing a key member of the team or your sponsor is unhappy.

“What I do rather than get rattled is to analyze the situation, try to correct it or straighten the program out and go forward. A lot of things rattle me earlier in life, but as you get older, you get more experience. You try to take things in stride and have a good time.”

Moments earlier than his dying, Dale Earnhardt was having time. He was mixing it up at Daytona, doing what he did greatest, loving each second of it.

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