This article was published in the Feb. 26, 2001 issue of The Sporting News.
Dale Earnhardt, the most recognized driver in NASCAR, died at Daytona doing what he did best — pushing his race car to the limit
By Lee Spencer
I walked past the driver’s window of the No. 3 Chevrolet, and Dale Earnhardt waved, winked and flashed that unforgettable, mischievous, mustached smile.
Strapped tightly into his legendary black car and wearing the open-faced helmet he preferred for comfort’s sake, Earnhardt was relaxed and affable last Sunday as he waited on the starting grid for his 23rd Daytona 500.
Never for a moment did I think it would be my last glimpse of his familiar face.
Earnhardt, the driver who won more races than any other at Daytona, the driver who amassed seven Winston Cup titles and 76 wins over a 25-year career — the driver who was husband to Teresa and father to Kerry, Kelly, Dale Jr. and Taylor Nicole — never made it to the finish line. He left the track in an ambulance, fatally injured.
On the final lap, the man who understood the draft better than anyone else, backed off the lead pack behind Michael Waltrip and Dale Jr. to block the oncoming assault from Sterling Marlin, Ken Schrader and Rusty Wallace. Earnhardt knew that taking his opponents three-wide would open the door for Waltrip and Junior to battle for the victory.
This wasn’t the Dale Earnhardt who many times said that on a race track his son was just another competitor. This wasn’t the Dale Earnhardt who said he probably would bump Junior’s No. 8 out of the way if the black No. 3 had a chance to win. This was the ultimate act of selflessness from a driver who began the season with the deep-seated belief he would win his eighth Winston Cup championship.
That act of selflessness might have cost him his life.
Marlin, with an excellent chance to break a 149-race winless streak if he could get past Earnhardt, was doing his best to make a move. Earnhardt was doing his best to hold him off. As the cars roared into Turn 4, they bumped, and the No. 3 careened out of control and hit the concrete retaining wall with brutal impact.
On the radio, silence.
Richard Childress, Earnhardt’s team owner since 1984 and his friend before that, got no response to his anxious radio call to his driver’s headset. Childress sent teammate Mike Skinner to the scene of the wreck. Still nothing. He radioed Teresa … to crew chief Kevin Hamlin … someone, anyone, to get an answer, but nothing came.
In victory lane, Michael Waltrip, the newest member of the team Earnhardt owns, was celebrating his first Winston Cup win in 463 starts. The emotion between the brothers Waltrip — Darrell called the race from the television booth — was the highlight of the Fox broadcast.
No one knew that NASCAR’s foremost driver sat lifeless as paramedics struggled to cut him from his wrecked car, which had come to rest on the grass in the tri-oval portion of the track. Earnhardt did not respond to efforts to revive him, and he was pronounced dead at 5:14 p.m. at nearby Halifax Medical Center, where he was taken by ambulance.
“NASCAR has lost its greatest driver ever, and I have lost a dear friend,” said NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr.
As a young man, Earnhardt’s potential was obvious to France. Recently, France talked from his heart about the contribution Earnhardt had made to the sport that the France family founded and even more about the respect he had for Earnhardt as a man.
And next to his father, Ralph, who died unexpectedly in 1973 before getting to see his son race in Winston Cup, it was France whom Earnhardt admired most.
“He helped me grow,” Earnhardt said last month. “He helped me understand the sport better. Bill has always been a great leader and a great philosopher. The interesting thing about Bill is that he doesn’t forget anything about people. He remembers a person’s name, who they are, what they do and what the said, for that matter … in 1940. He’s been there. He’s seen it. He’s been up against these situations, and he knows what to expect and how to handle it.”
Although it was Earnhardt who laid the groundwork for a formidable motorsports dynasty, it was “Billy’s” guidance that took the scruffy factory worker from Kannapolis, N.C., and turned him into a legend. Earnhardt’s wife, Teresa, who knew him best, said that part of the success was sell “Earnhardt” the image — The Intimidator, who was feared on and off the track. Yet if Earnhardt respected someone and gained their trust, one couldn’t ask for a truer friend.
Earnhardt also was a NASCAR loyalist. Despite the safety issues, despite the uneven distribution of TV money and despite any inequities among the manufacturers, Earnhardt refused to tarnish the name of the family or the sport that made him.
In an interview last month, Benny Parsons spoke of how much Earnhardt had evolved and matured since joining Winston Cup ranks as a rookie in 1979.
“When he first came on the scene, I said he can’t pull off representing the big company,” Parsons said. “And boy, was I wrong there. Then I said he can’t be consistent enough to win a championship — he’s too much of a hard charger, he runs too hard to win championships. And once again, I was wrong. He has been really, truly amazing with how he has grown as far as his ability to speak and get up in front of people and be very candid. He’s also been amazing on the racetrack.
“I think Earnhardt has more fans than any one driver. I wouldn’t dare say he has more than all the other drivers combined, but if you interviewed every fan that came through the gates for the Daytona 500 and they gave you an honest answer, I think Earnhardt would total up more than anyone else. Any time you have somebody that popular — like Richard Petty or David Pearson — then yes, they have a dramatic impact on the sport.”
Childress and Earnhardt were just two simple racers from North Carolina. Off the track, they were friends. The two hunted and fished and enjoyed life. Childress often said their relationship was based on “the tremendous respect” they had for each other.
“It doesn’t matter what it is, he doesn’t like to lose,” Childress said. “He just has a competitive nature. When you get down to the last 50 laps of a race, he knows how to dig deeper than any driver I know to make things happen.”
Earnhardt had a work ethic second to none. He didn’t give handouts to his first three children, choosing to share that same lesson with them. Kerry and Junior had to work at Earnhardt’s Chevrolet dealership and on their own cars before earning the right to race — just as Dad had. Earnhardt’s oldest daughter, Kelly, raced as well, but she is currently a successful businesswoman with Action Performance, a racing collectibles business. When Earnhardt spoke of Kelly’s newborn daughter, a softness that was unmatched came over his face.
Finally, with 12-year-old Taylor Nicole, Earnhardt had a chance to be the father he didn’t have time to be to his other children. It wasn’t unusual when Earnhardt was in town to see him pick up Taylor from school or take her hunting for deer on the family’s 300-acre farm in Mooresville, N.C.
When I talked to Earnhardt last month, he could hardly contain his excitement of finding a vintage 1988 Corvette for Taylor — the year she was born. He spoke of the low miles on the car and how it took him a year to find just the right one. She had a dream that “Daddy” had bought her a car.
The next day when she got home from school, she and Dad took a spin around the farm in her new Corvette. Earnhardt pointed to the car and bragged about how Taylor already was becoming a great little driver, how she parked the car perfectly on the showroom floor. Then he said how proud he was of all his children and how far they had come. He described the struggles of building Dale Earnhardt Inc., but he said it was worth it to ensure his children’s future.
“In the grand scheme of things, it’s unique to have all this, but I feel that Dale Earnhardt Jr. one day will be able to step in and run all this, and hopefully Kelly and Kerry and Taylor will all be involved too,” Earnhardt said. “They’ll all run this and race out of here and then do great. Hopefully after I retire from driving, I’ll be a great car owner for several years, then I can turn this over to the kids and let them run it and race on.”
Ned Jarrett, winner of 50 races over a 13-year career in Winston Cup racing, says Earnhardt was a champ. “In my opinion, and I’ve said this many times, he was the best race-car driver that ever raced,” Jarrett says. “He had a tremendous amount of God-given talent, and he worked hard to get the most out of it. Everybody respected the man for what he could do with a race car.”
Jarrett says NASCAR doesn’t need to delay or cancel the next race, which is at Rockingham, out of respect for Earnhardt. “The world doesn’t stop because we lose somebody,” he says. “He wouldn’t want it that way. He would’ve wanted his son to be out there racing.”
Jarrett has seen a lot of lives lost during his involvement with the sport. Earnhardt’s death is the fourth in NASCAR series racing in the last 13 months. “It’s just so hard to accept they’re not there anymore,” Jarrett says. “When you lose someone who accomplished so much to get the sport where it is today, it’s tough. The man was dedicated to what he did. Every time he strapped himself into the race car, he went as hard as he could.”
Fans in the infield at the Daytona 500 were in disbelief. “It’s awful,” said Kimberly Bennett, an Earnhardt fan who, with her dad, Neil, was wheeling away two souvenir tires from Earnhardt Jr.’s pit. “It makes your heart hurt, just thinking about it.”
“It’s put a shadow over this whole speedway,” Neil Bennett, 41, said. “It’s a tremendous loss to motorsports.”
Kimberly drives Legends series cars in her native Stockton, Ga., and recently had painted her No. 21 car to look exactly the same as Earnhardt’s No. 3, down to the black, white and red paint job. “I liked the way he talked when he came out of the car,” says Kimberly, 15. “He always had something nice to say. And he was real competitive.”
Jarrett says NASCAR doesn’t need to re-evaluate its safety policy. “NASCAR does a good job of doing what it can to make those racecars as safe as possible,” he says. “I guess you can only do so much. Certainly we’ve seen race cars torn up worse than his was and watched (the drivers) walk away. What safety measures could have prevented his death? I have no idea.”
Earnhardt had reached a stage in his life where he was content. He couldn’t fight middle age, so he accepted it and approached it with a grace that comes from a confidence that few obtain.
“Life changes as you go through it,” he said. “Sure you have to focus on different things at different times in your career. I’m 49 years old, and I’m pretty comfortable in life. Things don’t really rattle me when someone comes up and says you’re getting audited by the tax collector or you’re losing a key member of the team or your sponsor is unhappy.
“What I do rather than get rattled is to analyze the situation, try to correct it or straighten the program out and go forward. A lot of things rattle me earlier in life, but as you get older, you get more experience. You try to take things in stride and have a good time.”
Moments before his death, Dale Earnhardt was having a good time. He was mixing it up at Daytona, doing what he did best, loving every second of it.