February 18, 2001.
It’s a day I’ll never forget.
I was 8 years old at the time and it’s the first NASCAR race I can ever remember watching, and it’ll be the one I’ll never forget. I can remember seeing the crash and not thinking anything bad was going to happen after that. Not knowing hours later, NASCAR president Mike Helton was going to utter the words that are now etched in NASCAR fans’ minds forever.
“This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements that I’ve ever had to personally make, but after the accident in turn four at the Daytona 500 we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.”
I wasn’t in the room at the time of the announcement but the death of Dale Earnhardt upset my father enough to where he kicked a hole in the back of the couch that was in my brother’s room in the downstairs area of our apartment. I know my father wasn’t the only one that was upset and angered over the death of Earnhardt. Dale was hero to a lot of people, he represented the blue collar people all over this country who worked hard to make sure there was food on the table for their families. He busted his ass to get to where he was both professionally and personally. He would race his car on the weekends and then live a normal life during the week, tending to his farm in North Carolina. He didn’t have to do those things with all the money he made during his racing career but he never changed who he was as a man and how he was raised by his parents.
When the death of Dale Earnhardt happened, NASCAR’s safety improvement discussions went full throttle. They were already working on improving the safety after the deaths of Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin Jr in 2000. The HANS (Head and Neck support) device was being used by some drivers to keep their heads from launching forward to decrease the chances of a basilar skull fracture which killed Petty, Irwin, and then Earnhardt. After Earnhardt’s death, NASCAR mandated all drivers wear the HANS device. The SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barriers were first installed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2002, they helped absorb the energy from cars hitting the concrete walls at race tracks. By 2005, they were at every oval track NASCAR competed at. NASCAR created a “Car of Tomorrow” that’s been re-designed several times since the intial debut in 2007 made the cars safer with carbon fiber seats, shaped to the specific driver’s body, and foam was added to the sides of the cars to help absorb energy to reduce the violent hits to the wall and from other cars. No deaths have happened in NASCAR since Earnhardt’s in 2001.
Earnhardt’s legacy lives on today in NASCAR. His son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is one of the top drivers in the Sprint Cup Series and continues to make the Earnhardt family name proud winning two Daytona 500s and is the reigning 13 time Most Popular Driver in the sport, due in large part of his father’s fan base who jumped to supporting his son after Dale’s death. The legendary number 3 was “retired” after Earnhardt’s death by owner Richard Childress but in 2013, Childress brought it back out putting his grandson Austin Dillon behind the wheel of the legendary. Dillon hasn’t lived up to the 3’s legacy yet but he’s getting better as his career continues. Austin’s brother Ty runs the 3 in Xfinity Series and both have won numerous races in the Xfinity and Craftsman Trucks Series with that famous number 3. You still see Dale’s image everywhere, merchandise is still sold by NASCAR and is still one of the top sellers in the sport. He may be gone but “the Intimidator” will never be forgottten.