Breathe In, Breathe Out...It's Daytona Time

 by Frank Ryan
July 5, 2001

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For the throngs of people expected to attend the Pepsi 400 Saturday night, it is a time to let the healing begin. For the fans and team members who had left the Daytona 500 before learning that Dale Earnhardt was gone; it's a chance to come to terms with the moment that perhaps forever changed their sport.

NASCAR fans have been weathering the storm
since the Daytona 500.
(photo by Doug Belliveau)

For the drivers who must venture back on to the track, it may be a daunting task. They will bring their car out of the pits for the first time since the Daytona 500, riding past "that place" on the fourth turn, and must face this demon alone. Alone with their thoughts and their prayers, they must summon up the courage to continue racing. Similar to Kyle Petty's thoughts of New Hampshire, Dale Jr may encounter his toughest drive so far on life's emotional roller coaster. He will be dreadfully alone, yet somehow still comforted by his father's presence on the track. 

Understandably, Dale Earnhardt Jr will not be giving interviews at the track this weekend, but he did have these thoughts on returning to Daytona.

"This may sound strange or hard to believe," said Dale Jr, "but I'm looking forward to racing at Daytona. It's the greatest track we race at for all of its the history and the fact it was really the first superspeedway of its kind. You just know it's special every time you get on the track."

But what fears await Dale Jr once on the track, alone with his thoughts and prayers. 

"As for anything else, I really don't have any comments right now. I don't know how I will feel when I go through that tunnel or how I will feel when I pull onto the track. I will just to wait and see" offered Earnhardt Jr.

Dale Jr. says he's looking forward to racing again
at Daytona.

Daytona International Speedway has chosen to remember Dale Earnhardt upon completion of the Pepsi 400, keeping pre-race remembrances to a minimum as to not distract the drivers and teams who will come to compete. But after the race, fans can expect to see a video tribute to Dale Earnhardt, with a huge fireworks display including the number "3" mingled in among the designs of the pyrotechnics. Upon leaving the stands the speedway plans to hang black and red Earnhardt banners from the back of the grandstands, and as a final tribute, huge number "3"'s will be freshly painted on the grass outside of the grandstands. The speedway plans a formal tribute to Earnhardt at next year's Daytona 500. 

Traveling to a number of the races during the first half of the Winston Cup season, I was surprised and awestruck by the outpouring of emotions from the fans at every speedway. I sometimes wonder if every person who camps out at a NASCAR event is an Earnhardt fan, because nearly every one of them hangs a banner remembering him. Some of the banners are made of paper or cardboard, others are hand painted on bed sheets. Some have been professionally made on vinyl, but all relay the same message. It's as if they were waiting for Dale to look down from the heavens and give them all permission to move on with their lives. Maybe after this race he will do just that.

As much as things have changed since the passing of Dale Earnhardt, some things have stayed painfully the same. For all the talk of crumple zones, aero packages and restrictor plates, there have been few answers or safety solutions. Some drivers have adopted the HANS Device and others still have entrusted their lives with the Simpson Decelerator. Perhaps most compelling, NASCAR is still investigating the Dale Earnhardt tragedy. Mike Helton, the president of NASCAR, told the press on Tuesday that he hoped the final report would be finished sometime in early August, perhaps as early as August 1. 

For the fans of NASCAR, we are still looking for the answers to questions we are not quite sure to ask. So perhaps we should stop and take the time to catch our breath before Saturday nights 400 miles of white knuckle racing action, and if you have a chance, somebody remind the drivers to breathe in, breathe out, because it's Daytona.

The author can be contacted at frankr@autoracing1.com

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