Dale Earnhardt’s death at the Daytona 500

This is the first of a series of four articles on Dale Earnhardt’s legacy of life, death and safety, 20 years after the deadly 2001 Daytona 500 disaster.

INTIMIDATE STANDARDS guarding his hometown of Kannapolis, North Carolina, day and night, hands clasped to his chest, his folded gargoyle glasses protruding from his breast pocket, as visible as the “W” Wrangler on the back of his jeans and the seams of his favorite cowboy boots.

It’s a cold February day, and the statue of Dale Earnhardt braves the harsh winter winds as if he were a racecar driver on the track. The smile that comes out from under his trademark mustache says, “Come on, man, is that the best you can do?

The 2-foot-tall bronze statue is rightfully larger than life. For those who knew him personally, for those who work to keep the gospel of the Intimidator alive, including the man who goes by the name of Dale Earnhardt, his legacy is as follows.

“This is huge,” laughed Dale Earnhardt Jr. “It’s incredible, and I loved bringing Amy, bringing my daughter. When you see other people visiting it and putting their experiences online, that’s great.

“But these are only momentary things. They are not eternal. They’re not memories. They don’t replace memories, you know?”


E60 examines Dale Earnhardt’s legacy 20 years after his death. Sunday, 12:00 ET, ESPN.
Watch the trailer

The 2021 Daytona 500 is a Sunday, and February 18 marks the 20th anniversary of the death of NASCAR’s biggest star on the final turn of the last lap of the race he loved most. This great American race will be no different than any other since 2001, as the shadow of Earnhardt’s death at age 49 has never faded. But the strike date has made this year especially difficult.

Twenty years without Dale Earnhardt on the race track, with his hands on the wheel of the famous Chevrolet No. 3. That’s a long time to deal with the legacy of a legend. Twenty years means that the number of people who watched NASCAR without Earnhardt could equal or exceed the number of people who watched the race with him on the track. As the days and races pass, Earnhardt’s footage ages. The videos of his 76 wins are in standard definition. Images of his seven NASCAR Cup Series championships are captured on film. Without him, 719 Cup Series races have been run, an entire generation has passed, and enough time has passed for dozens of drivers to make their debuts and retire.

His untimely death still reverberates in the sport and beyond. In a four-part series in association with E60 (Sunday, 12:00 ET), we look at the perils of racing that Earnhardt knew all too well and the sacrifice of a superhero who has since saved so many others: his rivals, his son and Ryan Newman at the Daytona 500 a year ago.

But first we must understand the enormous impact Earnhardt had on motorsports itself. His handshake was like air pressure. He played mind games like Muhammad Ali, dominated the boards of companies like Peyton Manning, and went to the track every Sunday with the pride of Tiger Woods. Drivers who dealt with him at Talladega and Daytona even claimed he could see air.

It’s all true. Every detail. Dale Earnhardt was not a race car driver. He was a stock-car driver.

Misunderstanding. The movie is not specified.“Trying to explain Dale is like trying to explain John Wayne or Neil Armstrong or any other hero from that era that you can’t relive,” says former NASCAR president Mike Helton. Jed Lester/EMPICS/Getty Images

During Earnhardt’s lifetime, he was often compared to a North Carolinian at the height of his fame: Michael Jordan.

As we saw last year when the “last dance” sounded, cheering an athlete on from the depths of his heart, even if he is still a goatee, can lead to a setback for those who have never seen him compete.

But those who wonder why Earnhardt is so important have not seen the life that those of us above a certain age have experienced. They didn’t see him as the gruff blue man of the 1970s, the small businessman who could barely speak for the camera and who pissed off people like Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Ellison with a chrome horn as big as Caroline Piedmont and a bouncy attitude. They didn’t see the arrogant young man with a bushy tail who tried to lecture these legends about fair play, who then came at them and took their stockcar kingdom in his gloves.

They may have been born too late to attend the 1987 Pass in the Grass, when Earnhardt took a nap so Bill Elliott and Jeff Bodine could win the NASCAR All-Star race … Or that time at Richmond when he told his team he turned off the radio for a moment and walked past them on his way to the pits, climbing through the window to clean his windshield while driving his Chevrolet on his knees….ran over Rusty Wallace and Terry Labonte at Bristol in 1995 and smiled at Wallace while his future NASCAR Hall of Famer teammate angrily threw the water bottle at Earnhardt’s head … Or heard him say it when a reporter asked him if he wanted to talk to the sanctioning body about slowing cars: “If you’re not a racer, stay home. Don’t complain about going too fast. Get out of the race car if you have springs on your legs and buttocks. Put a kerosene cloth around your ankles so the ants can’t get into your nice ass.

Earnhardt is the man Hollywood tried to use to imitate the evil Rowdy Burns in Days of Thunder. The filmmakers even tried to get him to play the role, thinking no one else could.

He is a man with four nicknames: Ironhead (which was not a compliment), One Tough Customer (thanks, Wrangler), The Man in Black (thanks, GM Goodwrench), and The Intimidator (thanks, jock, for all those T-shirts you sold).

“He’s dead, and he’s been missing for 20 years. The stories, you know them well, don’t you? But maybe you don’t.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt was a pioneer among professional athletes in capturing their signature and image, and the first race car driver to do so – a high school dropout (which he most regretted) who by the time of his death had built a half-billion-dollar business empire. He started his own trading company and eventually sold goods to almost every other NASCAR star, including his fiercest rivals. Even a decade after his death, he was the second-largest seller of merchandise after his eponymous son.

He won 34 races at Daytona, from the All-Star Shootout to the Daytona 500 in 1998, and nine times at Darlington Raceway. He won 10 times at Talladega Superspeedway, including the last of his 76 wins in 2000, when he advanced from 18th to first in the final six laps of the race. Earnhardt won this elusive finale at age 49 by finishing second.

He was running with broken legs and collarbones. He grabbed the pole at Watkins Glen and almost won the race with a broken collarbone and a torn sternum. He cut down trees with a bulldozer. He worked on his farm throwing hay bales like beach balls, even though he could afford to hire an army of ranchers to do it for him. He tended to take his truck off the road to shoot deer on the horizon of his property that no one else was riding or seeing.

“Someone is going to ask me to explain Dale Earnhardt,” says Mike Helton, former NASCAR president and a man who has often been by Earnhardt’s side. “Trying to explain Dale is like John Wayne or Neil Armstrong or other heroes from that era that you can’t see anymore. ”

“…But you always try to explain it because there was no one like him. There never will be.”

Wrong!!! The film is not specified.The statue of Dale Earnhardt is the centerpiece of the Dale Trail in his hometown of Kannapolis, North Carolina. Ryan McGee/ESPN

On a cold February day like this one in Kannapolis, a few cars arrive every hour to see the Dale Earnhardt statue. Visitors almost always come in pairs, the oldest racing fan with the youngest man following behind. The elder tells stories by pointing out the Dale Earnhardt Plaza in the center of town, located near Dale Earnhardt Boulevard, somewhere between Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, the glass seat once presented as his “Garage Mahal,” and the bustling neighborhood known as Car City, where his mother Martha still lives.

The statue stands a short walk from the site of the textile mill where his father Ralph once quit his job to race full time, and a few minutes’ drive from the roadside cemetery where Ralph lies under an engraved headstone of his race car. The factory grounds are now a minor league baseball field, home to the Kannapolis Cannonballs, who were once part of Earnhardt’s team (they were the instigators at the time) and whose bold mascot still wears his customary mustache.

“I like going there, and I like it when people tell me to go there,” Earnhardt Jr. says of the rejuvenated area around his father’s bronze effigy, the crown jewel of what the local tourist board touts as the “Dale Trail.” “But you know the land is getting precious, the land is finding a new use. Statues like this move to other places and may one day disappear altogether, so I don’t put much emotion into it.”

So what is he investing in?

“Objects, pictures, anything I can find that connects me to my father, and I put a lot of work into it. Ask Amy.”

Earnhardt Sr.’s souvenirs have become Earnhardt Sr.’s commodity. If you lose a bidding war for Intimidator memorabilia late at night on an online auction site to someone with seemingly endless pockets, you’re more likely to lose it to his son. Especially in the last half-decade, he has been on the lookout for anything his father wore, drove or built, as he calls it.

He fondly describes his hunt for the early 1980s Chevy Nova that his father drove in the NASCAR Busch series – a discovery he confirmed when his uncle told him there was a hand-mounted driveshaft loop. When he rolled under the car, he saw a handwritten bill: “Handmade by Dale Earnhardt.” Later, he and his mother went through a box of old photos, and there he was, a little boy sitting behind the wheel of the same car. Now he’s in the same place after completely rebuilding his father’s car.

He pulls the firefighter’s suit he bought online from a vacuum-sealed plastic bag. It had been worn by his father on Victory Lane more than a quarter of a century ago, and the son took it off immediately. He calls to Amy, “Smell that!” She still smells like Winston’s beer and cigarettes.

He happened to find one of the Senior shirts from the 1979-80 season of his Rookie of the Year title in a trash bag he was about to throw away when he cleaned out the old family storage unit. Sometimes he would put on a pair of shoes that his father had worn for years, shoes that the old man loved so much that he had been allowed to wear them dozens of times.

“He wore the shoes like I wear sneakers, just all the time,” he says. Now Earnhardt Jr. wears them around the house occasionally, just to walk around instead of his father.

“It’s like doing genealogy on a family tree. There’s no end in sight,” he said, describing his search for NASCAR fan accounts on social media, especially those that publish classic photos. If he finds a father he has never met, he will thank him.

“I’m trying to hold back my excitement because I know it’s a little weird to get excited about something so stupid, but you, it’s great! I just learned something new about my dad!” Earnhardt Jr. talks about those moments when he sees Senior in a uniform he’s never seen before, a sponsor he didn’t know he had, or a moment he didn’t know he had. “You don’t expect to find out anything new about him in that moment. You know, he died and disappeared for 20 years. The stories, you know them well, don’t you? But maybe you haven’t heard them yet.”

Misunderstanding. specified.Dale Earnhardt Jr, a film specified.not specified.raising his father’s son, said he was “intimidated by him, nervous to be in the room with him” because of his “iconic” status. AP Photo/Paul Kizzle, File.

There’s always someone who wants to share old memories with Earnhardt Jr. It happens even when he hasn’t left the house. The UPS man delivering packages on eBay, the plumber, the pool cleaner…. Everyone who comes in has that look on their face when they have stories about Earnhardt Sr.

It was like when Junior was a kid, when he started racing as a teenager, and of course when he became the “next big thing” in the NASCAR Cup series, entered by his dad. At that point, it was too much. The bully experience was overwhelming.

“When I was little, he was a stay-at-home dad and a race dad,” Earnhardt Jr. recalls, “but then I grew up and started seeing him as the Dale Earnhardt that everyone saw, right? He was still a father, but I also started to see him as that icon and hero.

“And I even looked at him the way the fans looked at him. I would be scared of him, nervous to be in a room with him, and I would feel worse than him, you know, and all those unhealthy things, right? I’m his son, and he’s gotten so big.”

As a result, true father-son moments became harder and harder to come by, even when Earnhardt Jr. started driving for his father in the Busch Series in 1996 and made the switch to Cup racing at the end of the decade. When he watches a television commercial or interview they did together, he realizes that his puzzled look tells him he wishes he could take a deep breath, relax and enjoy these moments more.

Only at the end did he realize he felt different.

“We had a moment in pit road during the 2001 Daytona 500 when he grabbed me by the neck and said, ‘Hey man, we have good cars, take good care of your car and we’ll have a good finish,’” he said. “And it was like a Super Daddy moment.”

Of course, the Earnhardts didn’t know it would be their last call. They thought February 18, 2001 was just another day for competition. But three hours later, their lives and the lives of everyone who was on their way to the mine at the time would change forever.

Frequently asked questions

Dale Sr. died of a stroke?


Who was Dale Earnhardt’s crew chief when he died?

Andy Petrie took over the lead. Petrie’s attitude proved beneficial when Earnhardt returned to first place in 1993. Again, he came close to winning the Daytona 500 and dominated Speedweeks before taking over second place from Dale Jarrett on the final lap.

Who won the Daytona 500 when Dale Sr. died?

2001 Daytona 500 – Wikipedia

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