In the days leading up to February 18, 2001, nobody could have predicted — or perhaps even imagined — the death of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, Sr. Certainly not his fans, who were famous for their jackets, license plates, hats, even room décor and flags that proudly displayed the number three on them. He was more than a race car driver: he was a seemingly fearless man, impassioned and bold in his love of the sport. Known for his aggressive driving and down-home, straightforward attitude, he was loved by many. Possibly more than the world imagined — and possibly loved more than the people who loved him even knew. He was certainly proud — proud of his career, his car, his team, his legacy, and his children, the most well known being Dale Earnhardt, Jr., also a NASCAR driver.
He was the “intimidator” — named such for his aggressive driving tactics and his somewhat hotheaded nature. His easy grin and sheer determination fascinated men and women alike. Even if you didn’t like him, it’s almost certain you respected him. He would drive when injured, drive when his car was incredibly banged up, hug the outer edge or the inner circle, get within millimeters or closer to the car beside him. He was involved in so many accidents in his time that most fans never flinched when he wrecked. After all, that’s NASCAR — multiple pileups, cars flipping violently, and while such a sport always carries the risk of death, luckily very few died.
The safety mechanisms were and are still incredible. Harnesses that are far more secure than regular seatbelts allow NASCAR drivers to walk away from accidents that left people with their mouths agape, wondering how the driver survived. Most of the time, that’s NASCAR. Most of the time, the driver throws his hands up and shakes his head and the crew just gets ready for the next race. Most of the time, there’s not a nation absolutely devastated by a NASCAR race. But this would not be the case on February 18, 2001, at the Daytona 500 in Daytona, Florida.
Every fan seems to remember the events immediately prior to the catastrophe in a little different manner. According to Fox Sports, NASCAR was finally getting the coverage that so many fans desired. FOX was covering the sport for the first time in history, part of a six-year $2.8 billion deal to put NASCAR on national television and solidly on the map of bona-fide American sports. It was a fabulous day, full of promise and hope.
It was the last turn of the Daytona 500, and most fans were solidly concentrating on the fact that Michael Waltrip was about to take his first checkered flag. Some barely noticed or flinched when Dale Earnhardt hit the retainer wall and crashed. It was a rather banal crash to look at, as crashes go. Dale had survived much worse, including a severe crash on the same track in 1997, when his black Chevrolet was clocked at 200 miles per hour. In fact, he briefly was lured into an ambulance that day in 1997, only to jump back out, return to his suffering car and finish the race. That was Dale Earnhardt; that’s how he rolled.
But this time, his crew got no response. No cursing, no nothing. It took only seconds for them to register what it might mean. All the while, fans weren’t even worried. Dale Earnhardt was indestructible.
But on that day, at the age of 49, Dale Earnhardt’s enormously courageous heart stopped beating. The news of his death caused grown, hardened men to cry. But Dale’s spirit didn’t die — drive through the south and you’re still likely to see number “3” flags everywhere. Some say NASCAR was never the same after Dale died. And maybe it shouldn’t be. That’s what sets legends apart from other men and women — nobody can ever take their place.
[Photo by Dozier Mobley/Getty Images]