If you are a Formula One fan then, depending what age you are you will remember where you were on April 7th 1968 or May 8th 1982 or most likely May 1st 1994, the days that marked the deaths of Jim Clark, Gilles Villeneuve and Ayrton Senna respectively. And if you have any interest in racing in the United States and are old enough you will also remember where you were when you heard that Dale Earnhardt had been killed in an accident on the last lap of the Daytona 500 race ten years ago this week.
Earnhardt’s fatal accident was every bit as public a spectacle as Senna’s just less than seven years earlier, both happening in races televised live. There were other similarities between the two events, too. They both saw the demise of men considered almost immortal and left their competitors with that “if it can happen to them it can happen to any of us” feeling. Both men totally dominated their sports across several years and were both hard and ruthless competitors who were determined to win at all costs and yet, to those who knew them well, showed great depths of compassion, caring and soul when the occasion warranted it.
On 18th February 2001 Dale Earnhardt was racing the black GM Goodwrench Chevrolet with his trademark #3 for the Richard Childress Racing team. Earnhardt had raced for Childress in 1981 followed by two years racing for Bud Moore. In 1984 he returned to RCR and stayed there for the remainder of his career. He also ran his own team, Dale Earnhardt, Inc (DEI), although he never drove in it, preferring to stay loyal to Childress, and on that last fateful lap his two team cars were in first and second place racing towards the line, Michael Waltrip leading the boss’s son, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt himself was in third place about ten car lengths behind his team cars with a gaggle of cars trying to find a way round him. It has been suggested many times over the years that he was driving a spoiling race at that point, fighting to keep the field behind him and many observers believed he was trying to protect the two DEI cars and ensure their first and second places.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is reluctant to talk about the events of ten years ago these days believing what’s done is done and it was time to move on from it many years ago and also says, with some feeling, that he knows his father would be dismayed to think his crash was still a topic of conversation. But the one thing that Junior did say which is pertinent to the story, especially as nobody knew Earnhardt in the way his own son did, is that he firmly believes that the #3 car was driving a spoiling race not to protect the two DEI cars but to protect his own third place. He was, after all, a fierce competitor, as we shall see later.
Between turns three and four there was contact between the #3 car and the #40 Dodge of Sterling Marlin who was running just off the left rear of Earnhardt’s car. The Chevrolet slid left down to the bottom of the track, corrected and then slid up the track and into the path of Ken Schrader‘s Pontiac which struck the #3 on the right hand side and then both cars slid up into the wall. Schrader says that Earnhardt hit the wall harder than he did but it still appeared to be an innocuous enough accident; Earnhardt had survived accidents of that type many times.
As the cars slid back down the track, noticeably with no braking or steering input from the driver of the Chevrolet, the race was won by Waltrip with Earnhardt Jr. second. Schrader climbed from his car and ran to the side of the stricken black car and immediately gestured to the rescue teams who were already arriving on the scene. When they got to Earnhardt’s side Schrader walked away. He’d seen enough. He knew.
Darrell Waltrip, former three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion was commentating for television and thrilled that his brother had just won but did pause to say, “I hope Dale is ok.” Meanwhile Michael Waltrip was in victory lane enjoying the spoils of winning the big one, the Daytona 500 but slightly bemused that Earnhardt hadn’t come in to congratulate him, he being unaware of the events that had taken place behind him.
It was left to NASCAR President Mike Helton to say to the media, “Undoubtedly this is one of the toughest announcements I’ve personally had to make. After the accident in Turn 4 at the end of the Daytona 500 we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.”
Dale Earnhardt was a traditionalist. He firmly eschewed the then new-fangled HANS device and had the car set the way he was comfortable. His death was caused by an injury to the base of the skull and there is every chance the HANS device would have saved him. He also suffered broken ribs and other injuries. According to Dr. Steve Bohannon, Daytona International Speedway‘s emergency medical services director who attended the crash, Earnhardt was killed instantly.
Undoubtedly Earnhardt was a giant of a man figuratively. He had class, style and charisma to spare. He owned the world he inhabited – he was the man and he knew it. He had two nicknames through his career, the Intimidator and latterly the Man in Black. He gloried in the former and set out to intimidate his competitors on and off the track. He appeared to relish having someone who brought a hard race to him and then he beating them back. From Darrell Waltrip through to Jeff Gordon if those men wanted to beat him they would have to be prepared to fight hard to do it. Because whatever they brought to their battles with the Intimidator they knew he would give the same back and that little bit more.
Earnhardt once told his crew at Daytona to just give him a car that was good enough to get to the rear fender of the leading car and “I will make that man’s good day a bad day.”
Take a look at the clip entitled 1986 Earnhardt vs. Waltrip @ Richmond on youtube and you will see Earnhardt’s racing style encapsulated in just two minutes. And especially look at Darrell Waltrip’s face which tells you all you need to know about his feelings better than any words can say.
It would be so easy, though, to dismiss Earnhardt as just a fierce and tough racing driver. If you listen to the stories of the people who really knew the man there are many, many tales of the other side of the man.
Ned Jarrett, a two-times former Cup Series champion was commentating for TV at the Daytona 500 in 1993. On the last lap Ned’s son Dale Jarrett passed the #3 to take the victory and prevent Earnhardt from winning yet again the one race win that eluded him. By his own admission Ned Jarrett lost his professionalism whilst broadcasting, declaring he wanted his son to win this race, and then afterwards enjoying father-son banter with him during the post-race interviews.
At the next race Ned Jarrett saw Earnhardt as they walked either side of a fence. He stopped to talk to him and Earnhardt immediately congratulated him on the family win. Jarrett said he wanted to apologise for being so disrespectful to Earnhardt and his fans by being so unprofessional at that moment and shouting out for his son. Jarrett goes on to tell how Earnhardt looked him straight in the eyes the way only he could, pushed his finger pointing through the fence and simply said, “Don’t you ever forget I’m a daddy too.”
Dale Earnhardt was working at his farm when a local church leader called in to see him. It was established that the church was short of funds to repave their car park. “How much will that cost?” asked Earnhardt. On being told about seven thousand dollars Earnhardt wrote out a cheque and as he handed it to the man fixed him an earnest yet steely stare. “You ever tell anyone I wrote you this cheque and I will personally drive the bulldozer up to your church and rip the car park up!”
And yet another story to be told about the good side of Dale Earnhardt comes from the legion of tales his best buddy and long-time colleague, Richard Childress, has to tell.
In 1985 Richard Childress Racing was not having its best year ever with eleven engines blowing up by part way through the season. After one race they drove together back to North Carolina and as they stopped outside Childress’s house he said to Earnhardt, “I think you best look for another drive because we just don’t seem to be able to give you a car capable of winning at the moment.” Without a moment’s hesitation Earnhardt said, “We started this together and we will see it through to the finish together.” And he never went back on that word.
Jeff Gordon remembers a man who would bash and knock every bit of his car racing on Sunday, doing all he could to beat Gordon and then telephone him on Monday to put together business deals that would help them both.
And how can you not admire the class of a man who, having finally won that elusive Daytona 500 title in 1998 after nearly twenty years of trying and four second places walked into the press conference after the race saying, “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here . . .” and pulling a toy monkey from out of his shirt, added, “and I got that . . . monkey off my back!”
But almost certainly the best story about Earnhardt comes from just before that Daytona victory on February 15th 1998. After final practice before each race Earnhardt would help the crew push the car to the garage, check the tyre sheet with his crew chief, Larry McReynolds, and discuss what was needed for the car. On this day the car arrived back at the garage but Earnhardt didn’t. McReynolds asked where he was. No-one knew. After twenty to thirty minutes the driver appeared and walked straight past his crew chief like he didn’t exist, put his helmet in the car and then started rummaging through the toolbox. McReynolds asked Earnhardt what was going on and got as a reply a terse, “Got to glue this penny to the car dash.”
In those twenty minutes or so Earnhardt had been to meet Wessa Miller, a six year old girl suffering from spina bifida and wheelchair bound. In a meeting arranged by the Make a Wish Foundation this young lady had finally met her hero at the big event she wanted to see most. Earnhardt was clearly entranced and made this girl feel as special as she made him feel. As they started to say their goodbyes she thrust her hand out and gave Earnhardt her “lucky penny”. Wessa Miller left that circuit that day knowing her lucky penny, glued to the dash of the #3 car helped her man finally get that elusive win.
So, was Earnhardt a good man or a bad man? The simple answer is yes. He was both a good man and a bad man. But probably not in equal measures.
With Earnhardt’s enduring association with the number 3, a number which will be offered only to RCR if they intend reusing it, although it has been “retired” in Sprint Cup these past ten years, NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway are asking for a silent lap 3 on Sunday evening as a mark of respect. They want the course commentators and all television and radio announcers to remain silent through the third lap whilst hoping that fans will all stand and hold three fingers aloft. The Richard Childress Racing team cars in the race will all carry a decal with the number three on it.
Let’s hope it is a celebration of a great driver and a great man’s life and all he brought to the sport and not a look back in grief and mourning. Let’s all take a moment to reflect that there have been no fatalities in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Nationwide Series or Camping World Truck Series since February 18th 2001. And remember that in response to that black day ten years ago the HANS device became mandatory, the COT (Car Of Tomorrow) was introduced to the Sprint Cup Series which has better protection for the driver who sits more central within the car, the new car is introduced this season to the Nationwide Series which, again, is designed with driver safety very much in mind and finally the soft walls have been introduced to absorb some of the impact when cars run up the banking.
All the safety improvements have been introduced as a direct result of Dale Earnhardt’s accident and so in his own way he still influences the world of NASCAR as much as he did when he was alive.