Earnhardt dies after last-lap crash
Updated: Monday February 19, 2001 8:06 AM
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- Dale Earnhardt, one of the greatest stars in auto racing history, died Sunday from injuries in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500.
The seven-time Winston Cup champion, known as The Intimidator for his aggressive driving, had to be cut out of his car after slamming into the wall on the final turn of the race while fighting for position.
He was taken to the hospital accompanied by his son, Dale Jr., a young NASCAR star who finished second in the race. The elder Earnhardt's wife, Teresa, also was at the hospital.
"This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements I have ever personally had to make. We've lost Dale Earnhardt," NASCAR president Mike Helton said.
Earnhardt, 49, died instantly of head injuries, said Steve Bohannon, a doctor at Halifax Medical Center.
"There was nothing that could have been done for him," he said.
The death comes at a time that driver safety issues were under increased scrutiny. Three NASCAR drivers were killed in wrecks last season.
The wreck happened a half-mile from the finish of the NASCAR season-opener, won by Michael Waltrip.
Earnhardt, running fourth, grazed Sterling Marlin's car, crashed into the wall at the high-banked fourth turn going about 180 mph, and was smacked hard by Ken Schrader.
"NASCAR has lost its greatest driver ever, and I personally have lost a great friend," NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. said.
Neil Bonnett, one of Earnhardt's best friends, was killed in practice for the 1994 Daytona 500. Rodney Orr died in a wreck three days later, also in practice, and was the last driver killed at the track until Earnhardt.
It was the second major wreck in five years in the race for Earnhardt. He flipped wildly on the backstretch near the end of the race in 1997 but was not seriously hurt. He came back to win the race the next year on his 20th try.
Earnhardt is the leader among active Winston Cup drivers with 76 career victories. He also had the most victories, 34, at Daytona International Speedway, which lowered its infield flag to half-staff following the race.
"My heart is hurting right now," Waltrip, the race winner, said before news of Earnhardt's death was announced. "I would rather be any place right this moment than here. It's so painful."
Earnhardt Jr. quickly left the post-race celebration for Waltrip, and sprinted to the infield care center to be with his father. It took several minutes to get the elder Earnhardt out of the car, and he was quickly taken to Halifax Hospital.
Meanwhile, the crowd at Victory Circle was chanting "DEI, DEI," for Dale Earnhardt Inc., which owns the cars of his son and Waltrip. The celebration, which usually lasts 30 minutes, ended quickly.
Fans in and around the sprawling speedway wept after hearing the news.
Sean Brong, 46, a Daytona Beach resident, went to Halifax Medical Center afterward.
"People like this are not supposed to die. These are heroes," Brong said. "He went to his peak and beyond. It was way too short-lived.
"You can't lose someone like this when it could have been prevented," Brong said.
The death of Earnhardt left NASCAR reeling in the wake of a 2000 season in which three of its young stars were killed in separate accidents.
Last May, Busch Series driver Adam Petty, the grandson of stock car great Richard Petty, was killed in Loudon, N.H. Two months later, Winston Cup driver Kenny Irwin also was killed at New Hampshire International Speedway.
NASCAR truck series driver Tony Roper was killed in October at Texas Motor Speedway.