“Just to see Big E back on the track,
Would put a smile on every face.
No one drove a car quite like Earnhardt”. – Cledus T. Judd’s “I Love NASCAR” (2004)
I consider myself lucky.
Born in 1991, I have memories of watching Dale Earnhardt Sr. compete.
While they’re from well after the time he was winning seven championships, I don’t treasure them any less.
I saw him compete twice in person, at Texas Motor Speedway in 1997 and 1999.
In 1998, I was at home watching on CBS with my dad when he finally won the Daytona 500. Two years later, I vividly recall watching with my heart beating in my chest as he held off Bobby Labonte in a photo-finish at Atlanta for his 75th Cup victory.
I consider myself lucky in another aspect.
I didn’t watch Earnhardt’s last race.
On Feb. 18, 2001, 11 days after I turned 10, I have no memory of watching a single lap of the Daytona 500, let alone the tragic final one. I’m pretty sure it was due to my dad being in Detroit on a business trip, so there was no one to remind me about it.
What I do remember: turning the TV to ESPN News at some point that evening. That’s when I saw Mike Helton’s unforgettable, haunting announcement to the world:
“This is undoubtably one of the toughest announcements I’ve ever personally had to make. But after the accident in turn 4 at the end of the Daytona 500, we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.”
Pretty soon I was on the phone, calling my dad in Detroit to let him know.
It's been 18 years since the death of Dale Earnhardt in the #Daytona500.@KylePetty sat down with then-@NASCAR president Mike Helton on the toughest announcement he's ever had to make. #CoffeeWithKyle pic.twitter.com/NqplNRPBvn
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) February 18, 2019
“Well the years start coming and they don’t stop coming.” – Smash Mouth’s “All-Star” (1999)
The vacuum left in the NASCAR world in the wake of Dale Earnhardt’s death was immense.
I experienced part of it 16 years later in May 2017.
I was among a group of reporters invited to Charlotte Motor Speedway for an evening commemorating the 25th anniversary of the “One Hot Night” All-Star Race.
Among those in attendance were Kyle Petty and Michael Waltrip.
Not among us were Earnhardt and Davey Allison, the latter killed by injuries sustained in a helicopter crash in 1993.
At one point, the conversation turned to the passage of time and our perception of it.
“(1992) seems like a thousand years ago,” Waltrip said. “And nine years later was ‘01 when Dale died and that seems like yesterday. … Time has really gotten messed up for me.”
“I know … the same thing with Adam,” Petty said of his son, who was killed in a crash during Busch Series practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway 10 months before Earnhardt’s death. “Everything before Adam’s accident sounds like it was history. A million years ago.”
Petty later acknowledged the voids in the room.
“By Davey not being here and Dale not being here now, that adds to it,” he said. “That’s a moment for (them). That changes how you perceive this race as you look back at it. If we were all three sitting here laughing about it and complaining about it, you may view it different. You wouldn’t view it in that nostalgic tone as much as you do now.”
By the end of the month, almost everyone in the NASCAR community would be thinking about The Intimidator.
On May 28, the No. 3 returned to victory lane in the Cup Series for the first time since 2000. This time, it was piloted by Austin Dillon, grandson to Richard Childress.
During the winner’s press conference, I noticed a tweet by another member of the media corps. Paraphrasing, it said “Can we stop making such a big deal about the No. 3?”
All of a sudden, I mentally reverted to my eight-year-old self who spent his free time playing with Earnhardt diecasts on a play mat that depicted Daytona. I didn’t particularly care about Austin Dillon, but this statement was tantamount to heresy.
Curious, I wandered back to the tweet’s author after the press conference was over. I asked him how old he had been when Earnhardt had died.
Born in 1996, he had been 4 at the time.
Needless to say, the passage of time had put me in my place.
Another Daytona 500.
Another last-lap crash.
For many, history likely seemed to be repeating itself, albeit in a rather unsubtle way.
Coming to the checkered flag of the 2020 edition of the race and battling for the win, contact from behind by Ryan Blaney triggered a horrific wreck on the frontstretch involving Ryan Newman and Corey LaJoie.
Eventually, safety crews erected privacy screens around Newman’s demolished car.
Unlike 2001, I was watching and covering the race from my apartment in Charlotte and feared the worst: I would be among those covering the first death in a national NASCAR event in 19 years.
Newman was taken by ambulance to Halifax Medical Center.
After an excruciating amount of waiting, Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s Chief Racing Development Officer, appeared in the media center to share a statement.
Fortunately, O’Donnell would not serve in the same role as Helton in 2001.
Instead, O’Donnell said Newman was in “serious” condition, but that his injuries were not life threatening.
Days later, after having suffered a bruised brain, Newman walked out of the hospital hand-in-hand with his daughters.
Ryan Newman has been treated and released from Halifax Medical Center pic.twitter.com/J0twhGgQm7
— Roush Fenway (@roushfenway) February 19, 2020
It’s an easy, and sometimes fun, question to ask.
Then there’s the hard “what ifs?” The questions you probably don’t want to know the answer to.
What if Dale Earnhardt Sr. didn’t suffer a basilar skull fracture and die at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500?
In the wake of the similar deaths of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr. and Tony Roper in 2000, how many more would it have taken to provide the wake-up call to NASCAR that Earnhardt’s provided when it came to safety?
If not for the years of safety advancements that bore out from it and other incidents, what would have happened to Michael McDowell at Texas in 2008? Kyle Larson at Daytona in 2013? Austin Dillon in 2015?
For Ryan Newman, the one-year anniversary of his survival is “special, more now than ever” because of the 20th anniversary of one of NASCAR’s darkest days.
“He was an idol of mine,” Newman said last week. “And the reality is the start of my crash was really no different than the start of his crash, which was basically the end of his crash. I can see the progression that we’ve had from a safety standpoint and that’s gonna be a topic of many and hopefully not the end topic when the checkered flag falls on (Sunday). The real story will be the racing and not the … big crashes that we’ve had.”
Newman doesn’t believe that the safety advancements since Earnhardt’s death are his “bigger legacy,” but they’re “a big part of his legacy” 20 years on.
“There was nobody in my opinion that’s gonna remember Dale Earnhardt for the way that he died,” Newman said. “People remember Dale Earnhardt for the way that he raced and the way that he lived, which go hand-in-hand … I knew him as the guy that drove the black 3 car and if he didn’t win it outright, he’d knock somebody out of the way to get it done and stood in victory lane and smiled about it. A lot of people loved that and a lot of people hated that. That’s the legacy that I will always remember him by.”