NASCAR’s darkest day and how the sport has changed

Jeremiah Davis

The afternoon and evening of Feb. 18, 2001 is one that will live in my memory forever. I was 11 years old and had just watched the finish of the 43rd running of the Daytona 500 in which my favorite driver, Dale Earnhardt, wrecked on the final lap.

I watched the ambulance drive away slowly on FOX’s first ever NASCAR telecast with my dad, but didn’t think anything of it. I was frustrated he didn’t get a better finish and that he’d have his work cut out for him on capturing a record-breaking eighth championship that season.

It never entered my mind that the Intimidator, the toughest S.O.B. in the history of NASCAR, could be injured, much less fatally.

But then, at approximately 7 p.m. that evening, I again sat with my dad and watched NASCAR President Mike Helton announce to the world that my hero was dead. 

Yes, Dale Earnhardt was my hero.

Growing up in small-town Iowa [Alta, then Sioux Rapids to be exact], and with limited means, I knew what it meant to work for what I had — even at a young age. My father was a truck driver, my mother a bookkeeper, so I wasn’t riding to school in a BMW or wearing designer clothes.

In learning about Earnhardt, I came to know how hard the road to NASCAR’s top level was for him. He raced for people like my dad, who is as blue collar as they come. He raced for people working in packing plants for $5.50 an hour, who saw a little bit of their struggle in him. 

John Lennon once sang about a working class hero. That was Earnhardt for millions of people.

So when Helton told the world we’d lost Dale Earnhardt, it was like a member of our family had died. It may seem silly, but I’m not ashamed to say it. 

Earnhardt’s death was, is and will remain the greatest stain on the legacy of NASCAR. He was by far the sport’s biggest star and personality, as well as a mentor and example to young drivers. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart will both tell you Earnhardt was the greatest influence on them when they came into NASCAR.

NASCAR had seen three deaths in the year previous, as Kenny Irwin Jr. and Adam Petty both were killed in the same turn of the same corner of the New Hampshire Motor Speedway just weeks apart and Camping World Truck Series driver Tony Roper lost his life at Texas Motor Speedway.

But it took the death of the 7-time champion to get the NASCAR brass —and world for that matter — to wake up and realize changes needed to be made. In the weeks following his death, NASCAR mandated the use of a head and neck restraint system. 

Over the next few years, safety innovations were made in leaps and bounds in NASCAR including SAFER barriers — a wall system designed to dissipate energy on impact — and the Car of Tomorrow, which is the current car raced in the Sprint Cup Series.

So on Sunday, the 10th anniversary of Earnhardt’s death, cars will hit the track as safe as NASCAR has ever seen them. Just last season at Pocono, Elliot Sadler registered the hardest hit — in terms of g-force calculated — that NASCAR has ever seen and walked away. 

Earnhardt’s death unfortunately was what it took to open the doors for safety innovation, but it also left the sport without its leader amongst the drivers. Today’s group doesn’t have one who stands above the rest to speak for them and have their interests as well as the fans’ in mind. 

There are a few candidates, most notably Stewart and Gordon. Yet the focus of the fans will always be on Earnhardt’s son, Dale Jr.

And when the green flag drops on the 53rd edition of the Great American Race, the Intimidator’s son will lead the field to the start/finish line. He’s mired in a near three-year winless slump that very well could end in Daytona. As Gordon told reporters following Pole qualifying Sunday, things are “lining up” for this to be a memorable race.

Earnhardt passed on the talent for driving the restrictor plate tracks on to his son, and it would be all too fitting for the younger Earnhardt to climb out of his slump and get his career back on the right track in the 10th anniversary of the race that claimed his legendary father and hero to many.