10 years since Earnhardt tragically died

DEAN McNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:14 AM ET

TORONTO - In the late afternoon of Sunday, Feb. 18, 2001 Dale Earnhardt was less than one lap away from a dream finish in the Daytona 500.

Directly in front of him on the 2.5 mile oval was his son Dale Earnhardt Jr. driving the No. 8 Dale Earnhardt Incorporated Chevrolet and DEI teammate Michael Waltrip, driving the No. 15 Chevrolet.

There was little doubt that the race was all but over. No one was going to catch Waltrip for the win and the younger Earnhardt was equally ensconced in second place with one turn to go.

Earnhardt Sr.’s plan was to be the blocker to keep the pack of NASCAR (then) Winston Cup cars from getting to the No. 8 and the No. 15.

But in a hundredth of a second something went horrifically wrong.

Earnhardt’s signature black No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet lurched wildly right, after contact with the No. 40 Dodge driven by Sterling Marlin, slamming Earnhardt into the unforgiving concrete wall that separates Daytona’s famed race track from the outside world.

“Dale Jr. was second, he (Earnhardt) was third, I just thought it was perfect,” Waltrip told SPEED-TV. “Everything went just like Dale said it would. And I couldn’t wait to see him (at the conclusion to the race).

“(But) there weren’t to be any words. (Junior and I) just grabbed each other and held each other and went to the motorhome and began to try to ... live with it. I started wondering how I was supposed to feel at that moment and I haven’t stopped wondering since.”

Darrell Waltrip, Michael’s older brother and Earnhardt’s longtime friend/competitor, was in the broadcast booth doing the colour commentary for FOX Sports that day.

It was his first time as a television commentator after a 29-season, three-time championship NASCAR career.

Waltrip was an emotional wreck as he watched and described his baby brother’s climb to stock car racing highest podium while keeping an eye on the crash on the final lap that had silenced the nearly 200,000 fans in attendance.

He would tell NASCAR.com later that he lost his composure and his objectivity in the final, furious race to the checkered flag.

“I was excited. I just can’t hold back my emotion, and that’s the way I was in that situation with my brother,” Waltrip said. “I knew how that was going to be for him. Dale had taken a chance on Michael to put him in that car, because Dale knew that he could get the job done.

“I was just so proud of my brother and for what Dale had done with that team. It was just snowballing. It was hard to hold back. As the race wound down those last few laps, it became more and more clear to me that Michael was going to win. I let it all hang out, and I’m not sorry for it. I’d do it again.”

But equally on Waltrip’s mind at that moment was the scene unfolding in Turn 3 where there was no movement from inside the cockpit of the No. 3 Chevrolet.

“Dale’s alright, isn’t he?” Waltrip said over the air, at the same time knowing deep in his race car driver’s psyche that there was something tragically amiss a quarter of a mile from his perch in the broadcast booth.

An autopsy would later confirm that Earnhardt had been killed instantly as a result of massive neck and head trauma caused when his head was violently pushed forward when he made contact with the wall.

It was a moment that changed NASCAR racing forever.

After months of reviews and studies it was determined that had Earnhardt’s race car been equipped with a HANS (head and neck support) device, he would have easily survived the wreck.

Jim Downing, the man who was a major contributor to the development of the HANS device, is unequivocal in his belief that Earnhardt would have lived had be been wearing his invention.

“We rely on the professional experience of others,” Downing told veteran NASCAR reporter Mike Mulhern at mulhern.net. “And in this case there were different opinions by experts about the cause of the fatal injuries.

“With that in mind, I believe that when Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s car hit the wall, and the belts from his safety harness were loaded by the impact, that a HANS Device would have kept his head back.”

That realization set in motion a massive dissection of NASCAR’s then safety standards.

Within months of Earnhardt’s death virtually every NASCAR driver in the Cup loop equipped their cars with the HANS device and the race tracks where NASCAR events were held began a reconstruction of their walls, putting into place SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barriers that cushion the impact of race cars travelling at speed in excess of 180 m.p.h.

NASCAR even built a huge research and development centre in Concord, N.C., close to the shops of almost all of NASCAR’s top teams, to study and implement new safety measures for the sport.

It was from here that came the Car of Tomorrow that re-engineered the cockpit of Sprint Cup chassis. It created a cocoon effect giving the driver much more room and a much safer environment in which to drive.

All of this was a direct result of Earnhardt’s death.

In the intervening 10 years since the Daytona tragedy there has not been a single fatality in NASCAR’s top three racing series.

Witness Jeff Godon’s wreck at Pocono Raceway in 2009.

Travelling at about 190 m.p.h at the end of Pocono’s 3,740 foot front stretch, Gordon’s No. 24 Dupont Chevrolet blew a right front tire driving him into the wall at maximum velocity — much, much more violent that Earnhardt’s wreck at Daytona — completely destroying his race car.

Yet due to the SAFER barrier that had been constructed at Pocono and the HANS device Gordon was wearing, he walked away and never missed even one race as result.

This is the legacy of Dale Earnhardt, probably even more than his record seven NASCAR championships and his 76 race wins.

The final word on Earnhardt goes to his equally legendary crew chief Larry MacReynolds, now a race analyst for FOX.

“There is no question everyone thought that if anyone could survive a bad wreck, it was Dale,” MacReynolds said. “I think everybody, including Dale, felt he was invincible.

“Yeah, he could get hurt, but I don’t think anyone thought Dale Earnhardt would get killed in a race car — not him, no one who raced him, none of his fans.

“Nobody ever even thought twice about the possibility. Dale Earnhardt would not die in a race car.”


Videos

Photos