It is difficult to fathom the fact that NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt passed away a decade ago. I recall that day as if it were yesterday. I remember me and a friend went out and bought a couple of barbeque plates from a local barbeque restaurant, brought it back to my apartment, and watched the first Daytona 500 televised on FOX. I remember most of the race and some details of the race, such as Mike Skinner leading the most laps. Ward Burton was fast as well.
The huge wreck with Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte, Steve Park, Jeff Gordon and a host of others stands out in my mind. I vividly recall the closing laps, as Michael Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr, and Earnhardt led the field with a group of hungry veterans such as Sterling Marlin, Ken Schrader, Rusty Wallace, and others in close proximity. Of course, the wreck that occurred in turn 4 of the 2.5-mile facility is the foremost image that pops up when I think of the 2001 Daytona 500.
The wreck initially appeared innocent, especially considering the previous wreck that collected more than a dozen cars. However, the fact that Earnhardt did not climb out of the car, and then the reaction of Schrader indicated that this was not an innocuous crash. As I watched SPEED’s documentary “The Day”, more details of that day were revealed, such as Michael Waltrip’s victory celebration, and how he found out about Earnhardt’s passing. They showed video clips of Teresa and Dale Jr. rushing into the emergency room. It shed a lot of light on the day and the tragic event that occurred.
“The Day” was filled with genuine emotion by its participants. It was an enjoyable yet solemn documentary of one of worst days in the history of not only NASCAR, but also automobile racing in general.
Immediately following Earnhardt’s fatal passing, fans and detractor alike paid tribute to the man they referred to as ‘The Intimidator’. He was the topic of conversation for months following his death. As time passed, however, he was less of a topic of conversation. Fans still enjoy his memory, but so much as happened in the world of NASCAR in 10 years, therefore, a surfeit of topics have emerged as water cooler talk.
You still hear fans, competitors, and media members discuss their fond memories of Earnhardt, but many of today’s new and younger fan base never had to opportunity to watch Earnhardt race live. They are not as familiar with Earnhardt, his accomplishments, his impact, and his legacy. For this reason, I am thrilled that NASCAR is honoring him this year, the 10th anniversary of his tragic death. Also, I urge you to go to Youtube and pull up the 2000 Winston 500 at Talladega, the 1987 Winston race, the 2000 Cracker Barrell 500 at Atlanta, the 1995 and 1999 Goody’s 500 at Bristol, or the 1998 Daytona 500. Better yet, just type in Dale Earnhardt in the search box and go down the list.
Many wonder if NASCAR would be the same sport it is today had Earnhardt survived. I have read many assumptions of how NASCAR would have been shaped over the past decade had Earnhardt lived through that horrific wreck. I have found myself doing the same thing. One thing is for sure, NASCAR would be different, I am just not sure how.
Because we analyze the what-ifs, it is clear that we all miss Earnhardt and his presence.