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Beside the Rising Tide: The Raw Emotions of Dale Earnhardt’s Death 20 Years Later

Time flies.

Tempus fugit.

So my well-intended, if not nearly constantly intoxicated freshman Latin teacher taught me back when I attended a prep-school on Philadelphia’s well-heeled Main Line. Well, time didn’t seem to fly when you’re sitting slack-jawed with glazed over eyes wondering what sort of vengeful God was punishing you for your sins by letting you be accepted to a high school with no female students.

Yep, those hour-long Latin classes felt weeks-long sometimes. Learning a dead language seemed pointless. Even the Second Vatican Council had kicked Latin to the curb in the mid-60s in what you might call a Mass eviction.

So what brings this up? The 20th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s death in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. Reams have been written on the topic and my original intent was to avoid it as the topic remains painful to recall for too many fans of that era.

Truth be told,  I’m not a fan of Feb. 18, though it’s my middle sister’s birthday. It was also my best friend of over a decade’s sister’s birthday. He died in a late night single-vehicle accident on Feb. 18, 1989 about a mile from a home we were sharing. That’s the last time I missed the Daytona 500. That was the year Darrell Waltrip finally won it. He’s doubtlessly fonder of the date than I am.

But last week, one of my fellow FS writers, Daniel McFadin, did a piece on Earnhardt’s passing in which he noted he was only 10 the day of that fatal wreck. It was a well written article, but damn, did reading it make me feel old. On Feb. 18, 2001, I was 41 years old. My NASCAR writing career was five years old having started as one of the last ink-stained wretches for a variety of local papers, like Race City News and continued on the then-fledgling internet.

It is said that every American recalls where they were and what they were doing when Pearl Harbor was bombed, when JFK was assassinated, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded and when they first learned of 9/11. I wasn’t around for Pearl Harbor. I never even met two of my uncles who rushed the day after to enlist. Both lost their lives overseas. By coincidence, I was 4 when JFK was shot and I recall being scared because my mom and all the ladies from the neighborhood were in my living room crying.

I’d just arrived at work when Challenger was lost. My boss invited me into his office, a former broom closet with a 12-inch black and white TV. One of my best friends called me on 9/11 to say that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

We both speculated that a sight-seeing Cessna-sized plane had to be at fault, but I got out of bed and turned on the TV anyway… and sat there glued to it for the next 48 hours.

Reading McFadin’s column, I contemplated that next year a person born the day that Dale died or even on Sept. 11, 2001 will be able to legally walk into a bar and order a beer. If the topic of 9/11 comes up it’d be best he choose his words carefully out of kindness. Learning about the attack on America from a history text is a whole lot different than having lived it. Those guys with their elbows splayed on the still damp linoleum bar top the bartender just swabbed will recall some stuff that wasn’t in your textbook. One of my most vivid recollections of that day was ABC video of panicked people fleeing the White House. I don’t mean that they were leaving at a brisk pace. These people were terrified and running as fast as they could having been told there was an inbound plane that might attempt to hit the White House.

That’s the jet that ended up crashed in the field in Pennsylvania after passengers and the crew took back control from the hijackers.

Earnhardt’s death was tragic, but the grief was more isolated than JFK’s death or 9/11. To his tens of thousands, if not millions of fans, their grief was as real and painful as any other tragedy they had known.

That day was supposed to be a historic one in NASCAR not a tragic one. By some awkward coincidence, FOX’s first NASCAR Cup broadcast turned out to be Earnhardt’s last ride.

For fans at the time, FOX’s arrival on the scene was less than welcome. ESPN, whose brave experiment to televise NASCAR Cup races live, not via tape-delay, had raised the sport’s profile to unprecedented heights. We liked the crew of Bob Jenkins, Benny Parsons and Ned Jarrett just fine and didn’t like seeing them kicked to the curb. ESPN (and TNN et al) had always treated our sport with respect. It didn’t seem FOX had much respect for our sport or its fans.

Remember Little Digger and his animated friends? What the hell was that all about? When FOX’s David Hill was told fans hated the cartoon critters his response was terse. “Tough.”

Perhaps the cartoon wasn’t as big an issue as another issue that really pissed some people off. When showing the pre-race lineup, FOX used images of drivers without their trademark sponsor ball caps or those same sponsors logos visible on their drivers’ suits. Word came down from FOX that if those sponsors wanted their logos shown they had to pay FOX as well as the race teams they sponsored. So heated was the discussion that at one race there were threats to cut the cables to FOX’s satellite truck with bolt-cutters to keep anyone from seeing the damned race unless they had the foresight to buy a ticket.

But the biggest respect issue of all that day came after the race was in fact over. Darrell Waltrip closed the broadcast. I imagine DW had to be torn. His younger brother had just won his first Cup race after more than 450 attempts. But it was clear something was bad wrong in the infield. Kenny Schrader rushed to victory lane to speak with his friend and co-host on RPM Tonight. Whatever words were said, and they remain secret, Waltrip was clearly deflated and upset. Earnhardt was not only his boss but a dear friend of his as well. That’s when I knew.

But FOX signed off with Darrell Waltrip saying “I sure hope Dale’s all right.” Of course Dale wasn’t all right at all. I mean, if you’re going to cover a sports gathering, sharing that information is a prerequisite. In that night’s column I compared FOX’s swift exit to another network broadcasting a basketball game where a player sank a game-winning three pointer but then collapsed to the court and lay motionless. By sheer coincidence, I picked Micheal Jordan as the stricken player. Would FOX have cut away without learning what was going on? Of course not. Because FOX respected stick and ball sports, but not NASCAR.

To a reasonable person NASCAR was in a severe safety crises even prior to the start of the 2001 season. On May 12th, 2000, Adam Petty was killed in a crash in Busch Series practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. On July 7,  Kenny Irwin died in a crash in Cup Series practice in the same corner of the same track. Both wrecks were said to have been caused by throttles that stuck wide open. Why either of those two skilled drivers didn’t just press the clutch in at that point wasn’t addressed.

Both drivers died of basilar skull fractures. Without getting too technical or grotesque, in such an injury the spinal cord is yanked from the brain stem. It occurs when a driver’s car hits something hard. Seatbelts hold his body in place. But his unrestrained head snapped forward with enough violence to separate the spinal cord from the brain stem. Death is near-instantaneous by most accounts I’ve read.

On Oct. 14th, 2000, Tony Roper was killed in a Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway. His death was not instantaneous. Roper still had vital signs when he was admitted to the hospital and put on a ventilator. He died the next day with the cause of death listed as basilar skull fracture.

Either six or seven drivers wore a device meant to prevent basilar skull fractures in the 2001 Daytona 500. The HANS device was fitted under the shoulder straps of a drivers’ safety harness. It attached to the rear of his helmet with short straps and clips that limited the wearer’s head’s forward travel in relation to his body. The device had been under development for some time. One of the drivers who wore a HANS device in that year’s 500 was Kyle Petty, less than a year out from burying his eldest son. Another was Brett Bodine. He likely was getting some pressure on the home front. His daughter Heidi has been dating Kenny Irwin prior to his death at NHMS.

Among the drivers who chose not to wear a HANS device in that race was Dale Earnhardt. He simply refused. He claimed the device was “a noose” and that it limited his vision inside the car. Equally adamant was Tony Stewart. There was no way he was going to wear a HANS.

On lap 173, Stewart got swept up in the Big One. He was running third at the time. He landed upside down on the hood of his then-teammate Bobby Labonte’s car which had been running in 40th. An analysis of the incident and Stewart’s injuries revealed Stewart’s helmet had hit his steering wheel limiting its forward motion. Had it not, the 2001 Daytona 500 could have ended with two fatalities.

Stewart was still being treated at the Halifax hospital ER when Earnhardt arrived. He noted that efforts to revive Earnhardt had stopped. Tony Stewart became the first person in the NASCAR community to know for certain Earnhardt had passed away. For the record, FOX cut away from the track to air reruns of their cash cow in that era, COPS, in most East Coast markets. At that point I was communicating with Mark Ashenfelter of Winston Cup Scene at first by email and then by phone. That’s when I learned Earnhardt was dead. At which point I put my fist through a wall of my apartment breaking three fingers. It’s not the dumbest thing I’ve ever done, but it would appear on the first page on a list of encyclopedic lengths.

Also at that time several tracks, including Indianapolis, were experimenting with the SAFER barrier. The worst thing that ever happened to the SAFER barrier is somebody called it “soft walls” Trust me, if you rode your bicycle wide open into one of those so called “soft walls” you’d be very displeased by the result. A SAFER barrier does help absorb the energy of a heavy stock car traveling at high speeds over a longer period of time, lessening the force of impact passed along to the stricken race car and ultimately the driver.

You’d think with all their recent practice of writing “fill-in-the-blanks” condolence cards to the families of dead drivers NASCAR would have gotten good at it. When NASCAR President Mike Helton finally made a statement, it was far from eloquent.

“We’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.” He said. It’s a common mistake by even well meaning individuals trying to console someone else grieving a great loss. Never try wrapping yourself in the mantle of victimhood while telling that person “I know just how you feel.” You don’t. This isn’t a pissing contest.

At a memorial service held in the wake of Earnhardt’s death, Bill France did an even worse job. When asked how Earnhardt’s death would affect the sport, France noted Fireball Roberts had been the sport’s most popular driver until he was killed in a fiery wreck at Charlotte. The sport had gotten along fine without Roberts and it would be fine without Earnhardt. France, who looked like he’d been roused from a cot after an all night bender at a transient’s motel on North Tryon Street that morning, was not at his best that day. Perhaps he overlooked the fact when Fireball Roberts died NASCAR racing was very much a regional sport in the Southeast and pretty much a novelty act in the rest of the country. As their big new TV contracts proved, NASCAR had joined the Big League of sports.

Other folks showed considerably more grace despite enduring almost unimaginable grief. Some fans decided that Sterling Marlin was to blame for Earnhardt’s demise. As I recall it, Earnhardt threw a block on Marlin and what followed looked like a relatively mundane wreck in an attempt to keep Marlin from challenging the two Dale Earnhardt, Inc. entries, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip. Misguided fans even made death threats against Marlin. Things got so out of hand threats were even made against Kenny Schrader who in fact had gone to check on his long-time friend. Any attempt to move Earnhardt at the point Schrader reached the car would have been pointless. Dale Jr. quickly issued at statement that threats against Marlin or Schrader were simply “not acceptable” and in doing so absolved both drivers of any fault in his father’s final wreck.

In that era there were calls for NASCAR to mandate HANS devices for all drivers and start installing SAFER barriers at all tracks. NASCAR had always been hesitant to mandate safety equipment. It treated the drivers as independent contractors and allowed them to choose what safety equipment to use or not use. That way the drivers were responsible for whatever injuries they suffered. If a piece of safety equipment NASCAR required failed to work as intended or worse yet worsened the injuries a driver suffered they might be liable for damages. The HANS device was termed “a cure worse than the condition” As far as SAFER barriers NASCAR was not going to react for the sake of reacting.

All season Mike Helton was like one of my younger sister’s Chatty Cathy dolls. You pulled the string and just knew it was going to say the same thing over and over. “Not going to react for the sake of reacting”. “A cure worse than the condition.” At that point, the cost to install ten feet of SAFER barriers was around $600 for 10 feet. Recall the ISC, the track owning branch of NASCAR, had over a dozen race tracks in their portfolio. That’s a whole lot of cash to line them all the way around inside and out though the price dropped dramatically as production increased.

The cure was costlier than the condition, that’s for sure. And “at the end of the day it is what it is,” another golden nugget from NASCAR’s playbook. All the NASCAR officials in high enough a position to mandate HANS devices and SAFER barriers at the end of the day got to hop in their cars and drive home to their houses and families, so it was as it was.

A lot of what I’ve been reading this week claims Earnhardt’s death led NASCAR to immediately spring into action to make racing safer. If you’re a polite person, I’d term that revisionist history. If you’re more on the blunt side, I’d term that a load of crap.

As part of not reacting for the sake of reacting, NASCAR identified a scapegoat and threw him under the bus. During the lengthy red flag period that followed Stewart’s wreck Earnhardt undid his safety harness. It was later claimed that Earnhardt’s left side lap belt had been found broken, perhaps contributing to his demise. I don’t know. Here’s what I do know.

The seat and harness system in Earnhardt’s car (The so called Mustang seat and pull up harness system) wouldn’t have looked out of place in a hobby stock racer at you your local quarter mile dirt bull ring. I also know that Bill Simpson’s safety equipment has saved too many lives to count in many, many disciplines of the sport. Despite that, NASCAR’s allegations crippled his sales, sullied his reputation and led Simpson to leave the company that was his life-long work. I also recall that an EMT who was among the first on the scene claimed that Earnhardt’s safety belts were still intact after the wreck. He came across as a very credible witnesses. It took another tragedy to get NASCAR to react for the sake of reacting. Ironically, the race wasn’t even NASCAR sanctioned.

On Oct. 4, 2001, Blaise Alexander was killed in a rollover accident at Charlotte. In a bitter coincidence, the other driver involved in that fatal wreck was Kerry Earnhardt, Dale’s eldest son. By Oct. 17, NASCAR had added a rule requiring the HANS device for all three of its top touring series: Cup, Busch and the trucks. They were a bit late to the party but NASCAR was finally reacting. Slowly but surely, more race tracks were being measured for SAFER barriers starting with the most dangerous sections of wall first, but eventually all the way around, inside and out.

Today, the very notion of racing around a track lined with concrete walls seems barbaric. Yeah, time flies but a whole lot has changed in the last 20 years.

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sb

It still surprises me that I was and still am so affected by losing Earnhardt. Never met the man, just watched him race and in interviews, but it hit me unexpectedly hard. It still does. He was so much larger than life it just didn’t seem possible that he could be lost like that. such a unique personality, so polarizing, and there will never be another like him.

janice

i hate this day. i knew when he hit the wall and spun into the infield something catastrophic was wrong. no movement whatsoever from inside the car and tv would not show it. seeing dw and then schrader confirmed it. i hated sitting and waiting for that announcement from helton. that was the first time that i really felt like nascar didn’t realize the fans were more aware of things than they realized.

it could had been prevented, but nas$ar buried it’s head in the sand. then when blaise was killed in october they finally decided they needed to do something. we all know dale would had complained a blue streak about having to use a head and neck restraint, but he would had done it. stewart wore a full face helmet, that is probably what saved him.

what amazed me was when i watched the arca race at daytona last weekend. those drivers aren’t in the cocoon of seat like the top 3 series in nascar are. yeah they had on a head and neck restraint device, but their seats, looked like the old cup seats. open, no padded head supports.

the events of 20 yrs ago did help save ryan newman’s life a year ago. that and divine intervention. it just wasn’t his time.

seeing the cars wreck on the last lap of the 500 and so many looking like a hatch back from rear end damage was concerning to me. sure they’ve been built with crumple zones, but that fuel cell, even with padding and protection, i can’t imagine it being able to withstand so much impact and damage to the area.

i always black out 2/18 on any calendar i have, as it’s a dark day. i remember kennedy, king, kennedy, the challenger and of course 9/11. i actually work with someone that was born on 9/11/01. however, 2/18 is seared in my memory. that was a personal loss. i had met him several times over they years. he was someone i could relate to.

Bill B

I was there. First and last time I went to Daytona. What a somber cloud came over the town that night. As we left on Monday morning that cloud still hung over Daytona. It wasn’t spoken but it could be felt in our souls and seen by the look in everyone’s eyes.
Nice article Matt and thanks for setting the historical records straight. I remember NASCAR’s reluctance to address the safety issues immediately after the tragedy as well.

Carl D.

As I’ve noted before, Matt, we’re the same age, and I’ve been following your columns for decades now. I remember your scathing words after we lost Earnhardt. They seemed to echo and validate my own anger at Nascar for the circumstances that led to his death. Yes, today racing is safer due to steps taken after Dale’s death, but the cost was a man’s life.

I heard Schrader say he was “not a doctor” when asked about Earnhardt’s condition after the race, and I just knew Dale was gone. I was still anxiously watching the TV with my mother, also a a Nascar fan, when Helton delivered the tragic news of Dale’s passing. Mom cried. I was just numb.

Hopefully we will never have to deal with another Nascar driver losing their life on the race track, but I fear that another tragedy is inevitable. The big wrecks keep coming, and Newman’s wreck last year feels like a warning. It was definitely a reminder of how dangerous the sport still is, despite the fact that he walked out of the hospital two days later. When the fiery crash on the last lap of this year’s 500 happened last weekend, I feared the worst. Thankfully, no one was seriously hurt or killed.

I may not always catch the pre-race invocation on television, but I always say a prayer for the drivers before each race. When the green flag drops, it’s ultimately in God’s hands.

janice

Carl D – i still have matt’s piece from 2/18/01. have it in a box with my earnhardt stuff.

this past sunday when i was at church i said prayers before the start the of season for a safe one. i always say a prayer for their safety every sunday (or saturday).

DoninAjax

Four deaths affected me the most: Jim Clark, Jim Shampine, Richie Evans and Dale Earnhardt. The Super Modified series, Modified series and Cup series haven’t felt the same.

wildcatsfan2016

Thanks for this piece, Matt. February 18th is always a sad anniversary for race fans – even those who weren’t Earnhardt fans. I know so many fans have been painted with “oh you go to the races for the wrecks”. I’ve never believed that to be true.

I don’t know that I was afraid for my favorite driver until after Dale died. I totally and completed despised restrictor plate races after that. Janice and Carl, like you, I pray every week before the race begins that they will be safe.

I always thought what Nascar did to Bill Simpson’s reputation was beyond wrong and always appreciated what Dale Jr did in standing up to the fans for Sterling and Kenny.

KU

Correct on all accounts Matt, of course. I remember the whole year of the discussions. I really was pissed about what happened to Bill Simpson being made a scapegoat, given he SAVED so many lives.

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