It was a clear day in February 2001. Tony Stewart was driving 200mph on a straightaway when a car nudged him from behind, sending Tony spinning into a wall. His car turned backward and collided head on with another speeding car, flipping high into the air, and tumbling over oncoming cars. That day in Daytona, NASCAR racer Tony Stewart’s crash took out nearly 30 cars.
I’m amazed at the destruction of the sport. The stakes are so high, and drivers risk their lives every time they race. Tony Stewart survived the crash, but three NASCAR drivers died in competition that year. Shortly after the wreck, Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR’s most respected racer, got on the radio with his crew to give one of the most haunting forewarnings in sports:
“If they don’t do something about these cars it’s gonna end up killing somebody” — Dale Earnhardt
Despite Dale’s concerns, tow trucks cleared the track and the race went on. Dale’s premonition would come true too soon — on the final lap of that race.
I’m not a NASCAR fan, but Dale Earnhardt was a legend. And the story of his death is one of the greatest tragedies in sports.
Today in the Bulletin, I want to tell a little bit of Dale Earnhardt’s story. It’s a story of a man who was persistent, notorious, the king of NASCAR, and killed tragically.
The beginning of the story
Ralph Earnhardt, Dale’s father, was born in 1928 in the small town of Kannapolis, North Carolina. He grew up working in the cotton mill. In the evenings, Ralph would race his car on the dirt ovals in towns around Kannapolis. He developed a reputation as a discerning driver who kept his car in top shape despite the dirty races. Racing was his escape from the confines of the cotton mill, and it was one of the only ways out of poor wages.
Ralph started racing professionally in 1949, and by 1953 it was his full-time occupation, racing in cities across the south. In 1951, Ralph had a son: Dale.
Despite Ralph’s protests, they were a racing family, and because of Dale the family name would become known by every racing fan.
Dale Earnardt’s career took off with his start in NASCAR in 1975, and over the next 30 seasons (until 2001), Dale Earnhardt would win 97 races and finish in the top ten 503 times. In rural areas where NASCAR was most popular, Dale Earnhardt’s name and #3 became synonymous with swagger. He was the Michael Jordan of car racing, Superman on four wheels.
His aggressive driving and habit of riding rear bumpers gave him the nickname The Intimidator.
Throughout his 30 years on the track Dale Earnhardt dominated the sport.
“People used to boo Dale Earnhardt because he was winning too much”–Buddy Baker, long-time NASCAR driver and announcer
But there was one race he could never win: the Daytona 500.
200 laps around a 2.5 mi oval. Dale tried and failed to win that race 19 times, many times the race ended in heartbreak.
It eluded him for 20 years, until 1998. 13 million people tuned in to witness Dale win. When he did, grown men cried.
The Day He Died
Fast forward to Daytona three years later. Rmember the story I told you of Tony Stewart’s car tumbling and causing a 30-car wreck? This was the same day. The same day Dale predicted these cars would kill somebody.
On the final lap of the race, Dale’s team held the top three positions. His best friend, Michael Waltrip was in first. His son, Dale, Jr., was in second. And Dale held the third spot.
On the fourth turn of the final lap, Dale’s car made contact with another. His car veered onto the apron then back hard onto the track, only to be struck heavily on his passenger side. Dale slammed into the concrete retaining wall at an estimated speed of ~150 mph.
“This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements that I’ve ever personally had to make, but after the accident in turn four at the end of the Daytona 500, we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt. “ –Mike Helton, President of NASCAR
These comments on a Reddit thread tell what Dale meant to people, and maybe they say it better than I could:
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