End of an era
Earnhardt's death high price for fans' excitement
Updated: Wednesday February 28, 2001 8:48 PM
By Mike Fish, CNNSI.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- All week, everyone close to the sport spoke of putting on a Daytona 500 to remember. Drivers and officials alike wanted to lure new fans to stock-car racing, selling the speed and risk that is NASCAR.
Unfortunately, what should have been a day to remember ended with a horrific crash on the final lap, costing the sport its greatest driver -- Dale Earnhardt.
Nothing could have been a deeper blow to the sport.
Auto racing in this country has never known a bigger name, the feisty driving champion with the familiar mustache and dark glasses, identified by fans and competitors as simply "The Intimidator."
No one in stock-car racing has enjoyed a stronger following. No one has become so recognized by a number, the No. 3 of Earnhardt and his black Chevy Monte Carlo. No one has sold more merchandise to a following.
Not Richard Petty
Not A.J. Foyt.
That was brought home by the pre-race introductions, when the mention of Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion, brought the loudest roar of approval. Just two days earlier, his faithful loved it when "The Intimidator" spun out Indy car driver Eddie Cheever after the checkered flag of an IROC race on the same track.
"This is understandably one of the toughest announcements we've ever had to make. ... We've lost Dale Earnhardt," NASCAR president Mike Helton said.
The man Helton replaced this off-season, Bill France Jr., echoed the sentiments of many in the sport: "NASCAR has lost its greatest driver ever. And I personally have lost a great friend."
The death ushered a further cloud over a sport that has lost three drivers since May -- including Adam Petty, a grandson of Richard. Instead of wildly celebrating a first-ever victory by Michael Waltrip, the sport was dealing with the death of a sporting icon in an event that bills itself as the Super Bowl of stock-car racing.
On the streets outside the track, racing fans were shocked by the news. Few knew the seriousness of the injuries to Earnhardt when they filed out of the track. News of his death began circulating about two hours after the race ended.
Fans lit a bonfire above the site of his crash, holding vigil deep into the night. They hung caps and flowers from a fence in their hero's memory.
Medical staff said Earnhardt never regained consciousness after his car collided with the concrete wall on the final turn. He was transported to Halifax Hospital, little more than a mile from the track at 4:54 and pronounced dead 20 minutes later.
His wife, Teresa, was at his bedside.
"My speculation as an emergency physician would be head injuries, particularly at the base of the skull, that ended his life," said Dr. Steve Bohannon, director of emergency medical services at the track. "He was unconscious, unresponsive from the time of the first paramedic's arrival [at his car] ... was not breathing and had no palpable pulse and remained that way throughout."
Earnhardt, 49, remained the only driver on the circuit still wearing an open-face helmet. He also declined to wear the HANS device (Head and Neck Support), which was designed to reduce head and neck injuries.
However, Dr. Bohannon said it's unlikely either would have saved Earnhardt's life.
The crash was a conclusion to what had been a competitive, yet at times, violent day of racing. An earlier horrific crash with 25 laps to the checkered flag knocked out 21 cars, and saw another high-profile driver, Tony Stewart, going violently airborne in his 3,400-pound car.
Officials wanted close racing. They wanted cars running side-by-side, something Earnhardt never shied away from, and a bevy of lead changes. By day's end, a crowd of more than 200,000 and a national television audience witnessed an incredible 50 lead changes before Waltrip took charge for good.
It was the same competitive racing that put Earnhardt's car in a spin just seconds from the finish. With Waltrip and his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., running in the lead, Earnhardt had been blocking for them over the final laps, frustrating the efforts of Sterling Marlin.
Earnhardt obviously wanted to protect his own position, but he also had a vested interest in Waltrip and Dale Jr. -- both driving Chevrolets for his North Carolina-based company, Dale Earnhardt Incorporated.
When Marlin made an inside move heading into the turn, Earnhardt's car moved down lower on the track and the right front of Marlin's car brushed the left tail of Earnhardt's. The touch sent Earnhardt's car spinning up, hard into the wall and smack into the path of Ken Schrader's car.
"I was in my lane and he came down," said Marlin, unaware at the time of Earnhardt's death. "I guess he didn't know I was under him. I hate for it to happen. I guess his spotter told him he was clear."
Marlin, driving a Dodge, had one of the fastest cars all day, and because of that struggled finding other drivers to draft behind him. He saw nothing but Monte Carlos heading into the final turn.
"I thought I had a good shot to win," Marlin said. "I saw all those Chevrolets lined up, and said 'We're done.'"
Schrader was helpless to avoid the collision.
"We hit pretty hard and Dale hit [the wall] harder," Schrader said.
Even after the race, few in the garage area sensed the depth of what had transpired. There was joking about having put on a good show, a wild performance some drivers said they'd even pay to see. But the atmosphere around the Earnhardt hauler spoke volumes. The crew solemnly went about the chore of putting stuff away, and a burly security guard from the speedway turned on the assembled media horde: "Go home, get away. There's no news here."
NASCAR officials closed the garage earlier than normal. A short time later, with rumors floating, a woman left a NASCAR trailer in tears, sobbing about Earnhardt's death.
"I feel like somebody kicked me in the chest," driver John Andretti said. "I'm stunned. And I'm really sad. That's about all I can say."
Jeremy Mayfield, at first, didn't believe the news.
"After the race was over, I heard that things didn't look very good ... but, man, Earnhardt," Mayfield said. "You figure he'll bounce right back. Your first thought is, 'Hey, he'll probably come back next week at Rockingham and beat us all.'"
Few could identify with the family's pain than Kyle Petty, whose son, Adam, died last May in a race-car crash in New Hampshire.
"No matter where it happens or how it happens or even how prepared you think you might be for it, losing somebody close to you hurts," Petty said. "My heart just breaks for [Teresa] and the family."
Ironically, Earnhardt led the charge for rule changes after a lackluster Daytona 500 a year ago. His voice was not alone, however. The response from NASCAR was to impose a race package to slow cars, hoping to duplicate the tight racing and significant lead changes witnessed last fall at Talladega.
The drivers accepted the changes, acknowledging the dangers of trying to put on a big show.
"What is good for the fans is not always good for the competitors," veteran Mark Martin said on the eve of the race. "It's show business and we're going to put on a show.
"There's going to be a lot of gray hair. If you want to do good, you got to take risks outside the normal lot."
Added Rusty Wallace: "We had to do something for the fans, but I think we went too far."
Defending champion Dale Jarrett was another who questioned the changes that gave birth to two and three-car wide driving at Daytona, where the straightaway is narrower than tracks like Talladega.
After being knocked out in the 21-car collision, Jarrett said: "I'm sorry, but that's not racing. It may be a great show out there [in the grandstand], but from a driver's perspective, that's not it."
NASCAR officials refused comment Sunday night, other than to announce Earnhardt's death. But the message to drivers was clear on the need to play a hand in selling the sport, especially with the opportunity provided by a new $2.8 billion television contract.
Helton, the NASCAR president, acknowledged this week that trying to jazz the sport up for the new TV package might also make for riskier racing.
"You're going to see more of it because of the stakes," Helton said. "Our sport is exciting -- that's what we sell."
Sunday, everyone agreed, the price paid was too high.