The Frontstretch: Gone In an Instant: Earnhardt's Death Still Reverberates in NASCAR by Amy Henderson -- Thursday February 17, 2011

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Gone In an Instant: Earnhardt's Death Still Reverberates in NASCAR

Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday February 17, 2011


It’s hard to believe that ten years – an entire decade – has come and gone since the day the NASCAR world stood still. That day is etched in the minds of many race fans like it was yesterday: the blue car flashing across the line as the black one spun across the track in turn 4 and came to rest in the infield. It didn’t look that bad, really; certainly not any worse than the wrecks we saw all the time. Definitely not worse than the wild airborne ride that Tony Stewart had taken earlier that day.

But it was worse.

Dale Earnhardt, the toughest hombre in NASCAR, didn’t walk away. NASCAR’s last hero was gone before the car came to rest in the grass, before Ken Schrader was the first witness to the horrifying scene. Though Earnhardt’s memory lurks everywhere, the void he left behind has never been filled. The empire he was building has crumbled; the sport he helped shape is a mere shell of what it stood to become.

In one moment, NASCAR became a sport with no hero.

Longtime Dale Earnhardt, Inc. employee Steve Hmiel said it best in the days after Earnhardt’s death: “It’s like a compass that’s lost its true North.” In that one moment, the course of NASCAR was forever altered, and without Earnhardt, the sport lost a measure of direction.

No driver since Earnhardt has had the impact the Intimidator had on race fans. He was at once polarizing and uniting – you loved him or you hated him. But everyone was talking about him on Monday, and the sport was booming. In those days, drivers still hit concrete walls, and on a day when NASCAR at last was back to drive away a long, cold winter, the chill winds of change blew cold and cruel, throwing the sport into a tailspin from which it has never been able to recover.

At a time when NASCAR needed a hero and a villain to move the sport into the 21st Century, Earnhardt was both. As blue-collar as it gets, Earnhardt represented an America that is all but gone – an America where you made your own way, and if you worked hard enough, long enough, you just might make it. We were a nation that built things, and Earnhardt symbolized the American Dream-factory worker-turned-magnate, a pauper who built a kingdom. He was everyman.

NASCAR doesn’t have that anymore. Blue-collar champion? We have that in Jimmie Johnson, but he’s not loved for it. Villain? Sure, there’s Kyle Busch, but the ire he draws isn’t the same. Juan Pablo Montoya drives so much like Earnhardt did sometimes that it’s scary, but it’s not the same, and Montoya’s not accepted because he’s an outsider from the open-wheel ranks. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. shoulders a heavy burden with his father’s legacy, and he has legions of fans, but he doesn’t inspire the same excitement on the racetrack as his father did. He shouldn’t have to, either, but there it is.

Earnhardt’s influence in NASCAR went beyond the fans who, often in equal parts, cheered and booed him. He was the driver that NASCAR listened to, the one who influenced the decisions made within the sport. Ironically, Earnhardt’s influence may have played a role that fateful day: NASCAR hadn’t yet mandated head and neck restraints, something which the hard-nosed Intimidator opposed. But his clout was undeniable, and because of that, we are left to wonder about what the sport would be today if that crash could be rewound. Would we have the Chase? The top 35 rule? On the flip side, would there be SAFER barriers at every track and head restraints on every driver? We can only speculate and wonder. Where would Michael Waltrip be today? How about Steve Park? Kenny Wallace? Dale Junior? Lives that may have been very different took the road that was dictated to them by a loss and its aftermath.

Earnhardt was 49 years old on the day he died. It’s likely he’d be retired from driving a decade later, but the race teams he was building were meant to fill that void. While you can’t really blame his widow for not wanting to run the business on her own, it also never ended up where Earnhardt intended all along – with his children, as his legacy in the sport, meant to be there long after he was gone. Sure, his name’s on the operation, but everyone knows it’s only the name, and beyond perhaps the car manufacturer the team’s aligned with, it’s Chip Ganassi’s deal now.

There is no part of the sport that hasn’t been changed since that February day. Even its core – the racing – doesn’t look the same at many tracks. Two-time champion Tony Stewart hadn’t made his first title run. Three future champions were barely a blip on the radar: Matt Kenseth was entering his sophomore season in 2001, and though he’d had a stellar rookie campaign, nobody thought he’d blow them all out of the water in 2003. Kurt Busch was a raw rookie with just a few Cup starts under his belt. Jimmie Johnson, perhaps the best of all in the post-Earnhardt era, had yet to make his Cup debut and was racing for a second-tier Busch Series team. Earnhardt never saw the Nextel/Sprint Cup trophy, never drove the new car, never saw the ugly end to his driver Steve Park’s career.

Perhaps it was fitting that the biggest rival of a large part of Earnhardt’s career won the title in 2001. Jeff Gordon was in many way the antithesis of Earnhardt – young and of a different background, but with a hard, aggressive style that made Earnhardt an admirer even if the fans loathed him. 2001 was Gordon’s last title to date, and in 2011 he finds himself no longer the young rival but the wily veteran.

Perhaps Gordon should be the hero, then; he’s the one driver who raced with Earnhardt when both were in the best years of their careers, at once loved and hated, admired and admonished. The obvious choice behind that is Dale Junior, but that’s not fair-he’s his own man, and the legacy shouldn’t be thrown in his face, shouldn’t be the burden it often is. Sure, it’s a part of him, but it doesn’t define him – and it shouldn’t. Perhaps it should be Stewart, then, who is as bold and brash as Earnhardt but isn’t as easy to identify with. Or maybe Busch, who, like Earnhardt, takes the shortest way around the track, often regardless of who is already there? Busch is even harder than Stewart to identify with, though, coming across as spoiled and with an air of entitlement that Earnhardt didn’t share. Maybe Johnson, who grew up in a trailer park and is as blue-collar as anyone in the sport? No, because Johnson is well spoken, and doesn’t seem like that kid from the trailer park anymore, even though at heart he is.

In many ways, Earnhardt’s death was the beginning of the decline of NASCAR. Oh, the sport boomed alright, and boomed for a few more years, but when Bill France, Jr. also passed, there was so little left of the NASCAR that he and Earnhardt represented that many fans found nothing left of the sport they once knew. New rules followed, and the attempted transformation of the sport into something it wasn’t. That, perhaps, was the last straw. Even as he built an empire in the sport, Earnhardt didn’t change much in the eyes of the fans. He was still blue-collar, still everyman, the guy everyone felt like they somehow knew. Someone they could relate to. Today, the sport is different, and fans don’t have that feeling anymore – they don’t know these drivers, not like they knew, or thought they knew, Dale Earnhardt. Maybe, really, that’s the crux of the decline – the heart of the sport is gone.

There is no hero in NASCAR anymore.

Since that February day – the one that at first made the heart of winter seem like a sunny day in Florida – when the NASCAR we knew changed forever, irrevocably and undeniably, nothing has been quite the same. Something from the heart of NASCAR was taken ten years ago today, something that can never, ever be put back. The sport changed forever in an instant, and the impact of the instant has reverberated through a decade.

But it still seems like yesterday.

Contact Amy Henderson

Friday on the Frontstretch:
MPM2Nite: 2011 Daytona Qualifiers Race Recap
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Robbed of Anonymity, The Draft Reveals Uncomfortable Reality at Daytona
Marcos Ambrose Driver Diary: A New Year and a Fresh Start
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Restoring Daytona’s Dignity

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Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
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02/18/2011 05:45 AM

A very well written column, and a very touching read, Amy. Evrything that you say is true.
It is undoubtable that if Dale hadn’t been killed in that crash, some other driver or drivers would have died instead. Three driver deaths during the 2000 campaign didn’t make NASCAR “proactive” about driver safety. It was only following Earnhardt’s death that they finally reacted to the problem, and called it a proactive approach. So, for that reason, if you rewind the crash to save Earnhardt’s life, you have to wonder just who, and how many other deaths would be needed for NASCAR to become concerned with safety.
The most fitting part of your column, is that while you pose many questions and scenarios surrounding the death of Earnhardt, or arising from it, you offer no answers to them. Which is good, because those answers are non-existent.
In the end, Earnhardt’s legacy is that his tragic death brought about the focus on driver safety, very late and much needed, but that legacy has saved unknown lives already, and will continue to do so going forward.

02/18/2011 09:18 AM

Great article Amy

Its to bad that newer fans who know little if anything about the history of the sport and some of its greatest drivers have to always open their mouths/use thier fingers and show their total lack of intelligence.

If we are talking about superior equipment lets look at 2 extremes Jimmie Johnson and Danica Patrick both in superiour equipment one has 5 championships and the other is luck to finish.

Dale has been the only Driver to win Rookie of the year and follow that up with a Championship.

Yes I was a Big Earnhardt fan, and can only dream about how different nascar would be today if he was still alive.

02/18/2011 09:37 AM

Randy Goldman is entitled to his opinion and God knows he’ll give it to us even if we don’t want it, but that attack on Dale Earnhardt made me nauseous. Dale didn’t shove his philanthropy down your throat the way the Pettys and some of the others do. Dale Earnhardt did more for improving the sport than anyone in its history had ever done or has since his death. Dale spent so much time in Big Bill France’s office advocating for the drivers that he probably had his own office.

Randy, you can spew counter-opinions for everything that is written on The Frontstretch, but you’re still an asshole who can do nothing but hate and try to anger and stir up controversy. Maybe if you pulled your head out of Danica’s panties for a few minutes and did some research before running your mouth, you’d get a wider view of the sport. You really strike me as a guy who has no friends and uses forums to vent anger. I’m sorry your life sucks.

02/18/2011 09:39 AM

Randy I wasnt even a fan of Earnhardt, but your post infuriates me.

I cant hardly read an article about Earnhardt without wanting to shed a tear. Thats right a guy I despised and loved to see on jackstands in the garage in the middle of a race, yet missed more than words can express.

You are right Randy, his impact on the sport was simply skewed by his untimely death. Why dont you do everyone here a favor and just go crawl back under the rock you came out from under.

If I ran this site, you would never be allowed to post here, EVER!

Don Mei
02/18/2011 10:24 AM

You want to assign blame for Earnhardts death, look no further than Nascar. I have been involved in motorsports of both the two wheeled and four wheeled variety since 1964. Over the years I have been a rider, driver, sponsor, race director with any number of responsibilities related to safety that go on and on. What’s the point? Simple; everyone who is or has been involved in motorsports over the years knew back then that Nascar’s record on safety was ludicrous compared to Cart or Formula 1. Medical crews, crush zones, helmets and neck restraints….I could go on and on. Its sad that it took Earnhardts death to move them off the mark.

02/18/2011 10:44 AM

It has nothing to do with free speech and everything to do with the “The right to refuse admittance”

I am all for free speech. However, free speech doesnt grant you the right to yell fire in a crowded theater. You should learn to respect your elders and the ones that have passed before you.

Randy I think you need to kick back and get comfortable and pour yourself a nice big glass of STFU!

Carl D.
02/18/2011 10:57 AM

Amy….What a wonderful column. That’s the reason I read Frontstretch.

Dale Earnhardt wasn’t a hero and he never tried to be one. Like all the drivers, he just wanted to win races and championships, and he had his own intimidating style of getting that done. I never met the man, but from what I have read, he was a decent man who was greatly respected by his peers (though not always immediately following a race). You might not pull for him, but as long as his car was on the track, you could never count him out. Despite the bleatings of the ignorant, his 76 wins and his 7 championships are evidence that his legacy is secure.

Don Mei
02/18/2011 11:00 AM

Earnhardt died of a Basilar skull fracture which is precisely the kind of injury the Hans device and others of the same type were designed to prevent. The device was available I would guess about the mid nineties or so. Mr Earnhardt chose not to wear the device which was later mandated by Nascar.

02/18/2011 11:08 AM

Davey Allison, Alan Kulwicki, Adam Petty, Neil Bonnett, Kenny Irwin, Jr., J.D. McDuffie, John Nemechek, Tony Roper, Bobby Hamilton, Rob Moroso and Tim Richmond were all unavailable for comment.

02/18/2011 01:32 PM

One of the things I hate in relation to Dale’s passing ( and comments relating) is the fact that so many people view NASCAR as a horrible entity since his passing. There are so many negative comments related to the circuit these days that I wish those who constantly bitch about the sport would simply stop watching or shut the hell up. As much as I respect Dale and his legacy, he was not bigger than the sport. Those fans who can’t get past the fact that change in any vevnue is inevitable—and Dale is not coming back, either need to accept that and move on or find other means of entertainment. I think the racing today is as good as any we’ve seen.

Managing Editor
02/18/2011 01:50 PM

Some of Randy and Jacob’s comments have recently been removed from this thread due to the personal attacks. At this point, I’d like to remind everyone of the rules on this comment page; the next time I have to remove comments by either one of them, it will be the last time they post on any thread within the website. Randy, your posts frequently contain not just your opinion but calculated, controlled messages designed to push the buttons of other people on this website. It’s one thing to disagree, another to be disagreeable and certainly a third to be downright rude. Jacob, you’re no saint either and I’m tired of hearing other people refrain from commenting and/or complaining about each column devolving into a petty argument between the two of you.

Please, everyone keep your attacks to a minimum as we’ll be watching intently going forward. Thank you.

02/18/2011 02:35 PM

Randy is hit it on the head regarding Sr. (but has a way overblown admiration of Danica). Sr. was an ass. But someone aggressive these days like Kyle Busch is vilified.

02/18/2011 03:45 PM


02/18/2011 04:12 PM


Wreckless vs. reckless. Look it up. The spelling police did catch that one…

Joe W.
02/18/2011 04:48 PM

Randy Goldman is obviously a newbie fan. Dale Sr. was amazing to watch drive a racecar. I saw him do things live and in person at Bristol that NOBODY else could do. You are uninformed and biased. And guess what I’m neot even a Chevy fan. I’m a Ford guy and big Dale ticked me off from time to time but he was a great driver and did a lot for many careers. Dale Jr has won 18 Cup races and he won TWO Busch Cahmpionships for his father. Who knows how good Steve Park could have been if not for his accident. Dale Sr. was not a lousy car owner. You just don’t get it at all do you. Maybe you didn’t like him, that’s fine but the garbage you put on her is unacceptable. You need to look in the mirror and see what kind of person you are because you acome across very bad to most of us. Think about it.

Dale Sr Who?
02/18/2011 04:56 PM

Woah there Jake. Anger isn’t a good thing right now. Put the gun away.

02/18/2011 05:07 PM

JACOB I DO NOT appreciate your language. This is a FAMILY friendly forum. If you can’t find other vocabulary words to use then maybe you should take your potty mouth to another forum. Apparently someone is uneducated.

Dale Sr Who?
02/18/2011 05:23 PM

Mmmmmm margarita chicken. That sounds good. I’ll have that.

Ice Blue
02/18/2011 05:27 PM

Hey, Jacob, no one asked you to save this web-site or elected you to be oracle-of-the-world.

You now have the chance to take your egotistical and juvenile rants somewhere else where, hopefully, you can bond with people as shallow-minded as yourself.

Editor: It’s time you pulled Jacob’s plug.

02/18/2011 05:41 PM

Is Dale SR posting from heaven or hell?

02/18/2011 07:24 PM

Earnhardt’s death ten years ago is still being felt, like you wrote. But it didn’t hurt as much as losing Richie Evans. It’s been 25 years since his death and consider what has happened to the modified tour since. Richie was the same as Dale in that his opinion was important but he always wanted what was best for the series.
It will be interesting to see where NASCAR is in fifteen more years. I hope I’m around to see it. I’ll be 75 but tomorrow my mother turns 86. Maybe there’s a chance.

Amy, this is another really good column.

02/18/2011 10:43 PM

What most people do not know is the late great Smokey Yunick designed, patented and built soft walls over 20 years but Bill and Billy France said no way to them. If anyone is to blame for the deaths it is NA$CAR.

02/18/2011 10:44 PM

What most people do not know is the late great Smokey Yunick designed, patented and built soft walls over 20 years ago but Bill and Billy France said no way to them. If anyone is to blame for the deaths it is NA$CAR.

Becky Davidson
02/19/2011 09:12 AM

Great article Amy and to most who posted their comments to. Dale SR was a great driver, SAFETY became a #1 priority with NASCAR since his death and God knows the untimely deaths of Adam Petty, Kenny and more who hit those hard barriers made a big impact by NASCAR mandating softer barriers. As a fan of NASCAR since I was 5, a long time ago, I have been a fan a little over 35 years. I remember when so much was different. If Dale Sr was still with us, a LOT would be different. When he spoke, NASCAR listened. He will always be missed, like him or not…Forever the 3!


Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Announces Partnership with Cessna, Textron
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Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.