Photo: Orlando Sentinel
It was 10 years ago today that NASCAR lost Dale Earnhardt. Ten years. Flags will fly at half-staff today at Daytona International Speedway as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series cars practice for Sunday’s Daytona 500, Nationwide cars qualify for their Saturday race and Camping World trucks race tonight.
Still, there remains a pall in the air. There’s not a person on the grounds, there’s not a person watching on television that doesn’t remember that day and what Earnhardt’s passing meant to them. Dale Earnhardt was more than a racer; he was the face of NASCAR, albeit a sneering one that intimidated everyone around him. He really was The Intimidator.
NASCAR doesn’t have that kind of superhero anymore. It has bland, workmen-like drivers who occasionally try to capture the spirit of Dale Earnhardt but can’t. There was only one. Earnhardt’s aggressive behavior on the racetracks lent people to say that the reason he rarely hit walls was because there were no numbers on them (as there are on the racecars).
No matter how often or how hard he may have punted this driver or that driver, Earnhardt was beloved in the garage area. Everyone knew he was the reason for NASCAR’s great popularity; singularly Earnhardt brought people out of their homes and to the racetracks to watch him. Singularly he forced us to pay attention while he raced his way onto our television screens.
And suddenly Dale Earnhardt was gone. Killed in a crash that didn’t look like it could do the damage it did, Earnhardt’s death forced NASCAR and his fellow drivers to stop and think about their personal safety at a racetrack and in a racecar. In death, a man who detested most of the rudimentary safety strictures trickling into NASCAR when he crashed into the Turn 4 wall of Daytona International Speedway, became the poster boy for safety.
Earnhardt hated the HANS head and neck support that could have, and likely would have saved his life in this accident that caused a basilar skull fracture. For reasons of comfort, Earnhardt changed the mounting on his seatbelts inside the No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet owned by Richard Childress Racing. The accident that killed him changed everything in NASCAR. Everything.
NASCAR may have had safety initiatives before February 18, 2001 but it wasn’t until Dale Earnhardt died that these were enacted: head and neck restraints were required not long after that fateful day; softer walls began appearing at every single NASCAR oval; the safer but still unpopular Car of Tomorrow replaced the venerably racecars used until its introduction.
Although three other drivers – Tony Roper, Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin – died in the months leading up to Earnhardt’s death, none of them moved NASCAR to make changes as quickly as Dale’s demise did.
Dale Earnhardt’s death certainly changed the character of NASCAR drivers. Less rough and tumble than the historic drivers that came before them, more and more team owners opted for drivers who came outside the series southern roots. Some even came from open wheel racing and few ever loaded moonshine and outran the law.
Dale Earnhardt’s death robbed the teams, owners and drivers of a voice in NASCAR’s offices; he had the respect of Bill France Jr and president Mike Helton that no single driver possesses today. His death splintered the family business and allowed it to be sold to Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates. His death showed the public the difficult relationship between wise Teresa and her stepson Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Had Earnhardt survived that crash – as nearly everyone in the NASCAR Nation wishes he had – who’s to say there wouldn’t have been an eighth, ninth or even tenth championship to pile onto the seven Dale Earnhardt already had? Would he have stopped the runaway train that is Hendrick Motorsports and Jimmie Johnson? Who’s to say?
Ten years after Dale Earnhardt’s death, NASCAR wants to remember his life and remember his worth. On the third lap of the 200-lap contest Sunday afternoon, fans will raise three fingers, as they did throughout most of the sad 2001 season. It will be a moment of sheer emotion, of remembrance of triumphs and tragedy.
It’s been 10 years since Dale Earnhardt died at Daytona International Speedway. It seems like yesterday.
© 2011 Anne Proffit