CENTRAL VIRGINIA – February 18, 2001 was any other day for me, a young kid who discovered a love for auto racing, particularly NASCAR, by accident, seeing, then named, Craftsman Truck Series on television once and realizing people get paid to go fast around a race track.
That day opened the 2001 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season and meant I was in my bedroom watching the Daytona 500, rooting for my favorite driver at the time, Jeff Gordon.
Much of the race remains a blur 15 years later but it was the fateful final lap that has been etched into my mind forever.
That moment. The tragedy in Daytona International Speedway’s Turn 3.
Seeing the legends and iconic names of the sport racing through the final corners, Rusty Wallace, Sterling Marlin, Bill Elliot, Michael Waltrip, Ken Schrader, and his Dale’s son was a sight to behold on my 19-inch Zenith television.
Then, it happened.
Dale’s car careens into the wall at incredible speed, other drivers dodge and weave to avoid it, all while Earnhardt’s friend Waltrip and son, Dale Jr. drive off toward the finish line to complete the event.
I had watched many races up until that day and the emotion I had is still an emotion I get to this very day when a crash happens in NASCAR, Indycar, or any other racing league: Are they ok?
That question went unanswered for awhile after the checkered flag flew. FOX Sports’ Darrell Waltrip’s words echo in my head when I think of that day, hoping that Dale is ok.
Cameras cut down to Victory Lane, where it was less about celebrating a Waltrip’s first career win but more about that lingering question: Is Dale ok?
In those days, we didn’t have “social media” like we have now. No-one sending out tweets to explain the up-to-the-second developments of what was happening on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway. Fans, spectators, crew members, everyone, was left just waiting for an answer to the question, Is Dale ok?
It would be revealed by NASCAR President Mike Helton that the answer to that question would forever be carved into the consciousness of the sport and the racing community.
We lost Dale.
It was one of the first times that I, at my young age, was faced with the realization of death, especially in a situation where I had seen cars crash, flip, and hit each other over the years. But, each time, drivers got out of the car and walked to the waiting ambulance.
This time, that didn’t happen.
Those minutes, hours, and days changed me as a fan. It showed me a stark realization that these drivers, these pilots of multi-million dollar speed machines, are mortal. They are putting their lives at risk every time they get behind the wheel, taking part in the sport they love and that we love as fans.
2001 sparked a safety revolution that has resulted in the SAFER Barrier, required use of the HANS device (Head and Neck Support Device), and the complete transformation of the very race cars themselves, all in an effort to prevent another tragedy from happening again.
February 18, 2001 is the day that the sport of NASCAR and, in some respects, the nation, stood still.
An iconic image of American auto racing has left the world, doing what he loved so dearly.
Dale will never be forgotten and the legacy he lives behind will always run deep through the hearts of the NASCAR community.
Copyright 2016 by Hermes Publications