The line in Kenny Chesney’s “Don’t Blink” – “A hundred years goes by faster than you think” – haunts me today. Has it really been ten years?
He was “The Intimidator”…a working-class hero if there ever was one. Perhaps the last of NASCAR’s old guard…
[photogallerylink id=27600]Dale Earnhardt Sr. won seven Winston (now Sprint) Cups…a feat matched only by NASCAR legend Richard Petty. This was a career with so many high points…and what about the thrill of seeing your son follow in your footsteps?
Yet despite winning seven Cups, the “big one” had eluded him. Twice he was leading at the White Flag of the Daytona 500, with one lap left – only to get a flat tire one year, and run out of gas another year, both times seeing victory slip from his fingers.
Until 1998. Here are the last 5 laps of that Daytona 500:
You’ll get a lump in your throat as you watch this…Dale coming down Pit Road after that 1998 victory…one of the all-time greatest moments in motorsports:
That year, Dale Jr. actually raced in an exhibition event at Jennerstown Speedway, a 1/2 mile track about 100 miles east of Pittsburgh. It wasn’t long after he was in the Cup series…driving for a team his father had set up to better provide for his family into the future – DEI (Dale Earnhardt, Inc.) – while Dale Sr. himself continued to drive #3 for Richard Childress as he’d done since the 70’s.
That brings us to February 18, 2001…
This is the actual FOX-TV coverage as it unfolded.
Under normal circumstances I’d think twice about posting this…it’s not my intention to be insensitive. But context is everything…and the video provides that context. Also…
1) The crash doesn’t look that hard. But Darryl Waltrip, former Cup Champion-turned-Fox color commentator, explains in a replay around 3:30 in, how the look of the crash is actually very deceiving.
2) The two cars ahead of Dale that day…the last two cars he saw ahead of him before the crash…were the #8 of his son, running second, and Michael Waltrip in the lead. Both Chevy Monte Carlos were owned by DEI – Dale Earnhardt, Inc. And big brother Darryl was in the FOX Broadcast Booth calling the last lap and cheering “Mikey” to victory.
To say objectivity at this moment would’ve been inappropriate is an understatement. But Darryl isn’t blind to what just happened to his old racin’ buddy, although no one at the time had a clue as to what was really going on… and after several moments of silence from the booth, you hear the commentators hoping Dale’s alright.
Surreal doesn’t even begin to describe it.
This was the NASCAR tribute from 2001. Garth Brooks sings “The Dance” in this one.
During this period of Cup history, NASCAR was mulling over some new rules…among them, whether to mandate the HANS head restraint that Dale refused to wear when it was optional. Following his death, it was made mandatory. Another legacy of this tragedy was the move to the SAFER foam barriers now installed on all NASCAR Cup tracks.
Today’s Cup drivers are safer than ever, but the question remains whether the racing has been made…well…sterile. Over the past year, changes in the rules have been made to make the racing more competitive. But many argue that rules changes aren’t enough, among them Peter DeLorenzo, “The Autoextremist”. I’ve followed Peter for years and greatly respect his opinions. His comments on the Cup Series are provocative, but they come from someone with a deep knowledge, and love, of motorsports. A year ago he got wind of proposed changes to the Car Of Tommorow itself…changes that are rumored to take effect for 2013 and should put an extra shot of excitement into NASCAR’s premiere series.
In my opinion, Dale’s legacy deserves no less.