The Place: Daytona Speedway
The Date: February 18, 2001
The loss: Unimaginable
Certain events in life come along like the Kennedy assassination, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, and the attack on the twin towers. They have weight and depth of devastation to tattoo your memory with a lifetime of mental ink.
For the NASCAR fan that event is Dale Earnhardt’s turn four crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Up ahead, his son running in second place behind his friend, Michael Waltrip, both driving cars belonging to Dale, crossed the finish line in 1st and 2nd place. That would be Waltrip’s first NASCAR win and as the team celebrated in Victory Lane, Waltrip waited for his mentor and car owner to arrive, not knowing the horrific scene unfolding in the turn four infield.
Years later Michael reflected back on that day and said, “What should of been the best day of my life turned into the worst day of my life.”
The seven time NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion died like he lived, hard charging and racing through life. Dale Earnhardt was a lot of things to a lot of people, but to fans he will always be remembered as the “Intimidator.”
I had the privilege of meeting him in person, when he took a few minutes of his time to talk to me about racing in the Winston Cup. I suppose at the time I minimized the meeting. I was rubbing elbows with the giants of the sport as I roamed the media centers of Daytona, Darlington, Rockingham, and Charlotte. For those few years in the late eighties, our path’s would cross and he would take a minute to speak. He was always friendly in that Dale Earnhardt kind of way, larger than life and just as generous.
I’m not going to spend a bunch of time going over his career. If you don’t know by now you probably never will, but in case you are interested, go HERE. I just wanted to pay my respects to the Intimidator. The sport is a better and safer place today for everything he gave to it, including his life. Few men impact their sport to the extent that Dale Earnhardt influenced NASCAR.
On lap three of Sunday’s Daytona 500, NASCAR has asked for a moment of silence in reverence to Dale Earnhardt. The only thing you will hear is the roar of horsepower as today’s drivers go about their business of competition. How fitting.
“You can’t let one bad moment spoil a bunch of good ones.” ~Dale Earnhardt Sr.