Speed, Safety and Earnhardt

Part 3 - Earnhardt
by Pete McCole
February 17, 2002

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If you've ever talked to anyone at Daytona International Speedway during a race, at least one of those three words was bound to come up. Speed was always first on everyone's agenda, and safety was on the back of everyone's mind, and Earnhardt was there battling for the win. But this year it's different, it's all changed, and those three words which were once separate issues, have now become synonymous. Now, you find it hard to speak of one without bringing up the other two.

Of course, speed and safety are not new terms in auto racing, they go hand in hand, not just in racing. Wherever there's speed there has to be safety. They have become common themes at Daytona, and also at NASCAR's other restrictor plate track, Talladega Superspeedway. Since NASCAR's early beginnings in 1949, speed and safety have been there, and it has improved greatly in the past 53 years. But it was the action on the track that got most of the attention, and Earnhardt provided a lot of the action.

Ever since Dale Earnhardt's fatal wreck during the final lap of last year's Daytona 500, speed and safety have taken top billing at almost every NASCAR event. Earnhardt's death and the investigation into the crash seemed to follow the Winston Cup tour like a dark cloud through the rest of the season. No matter who won or lost, or the championship race or the action on the track, the thoughts of the tragedy and what might have been done to prevent it seemed to loom over all else. NASCAR faced a storm of controversy over how they were handling the investigation and what they planned to do to prevent driver fatalities in the future.

Now, one year later at Daytona, the memories of that day are foremost of many people's minds. It's hard to go anywhere at Daytona without hearing someone mention Earnhardt's name. He has become forever linked with speed and safety. It is impossible to ask any driver their thoughts on speed and safety without mentioning, or at least thinking, about Dale Earnhardt.

Earnhardt was the most successful driver in the history of Daytona. He won 34 races there in his career, including 12 Gatorade Twin 125's, but there was won win that had eluded him since he began his racing career in 1975. Despite all his wins at Daytona, he had yet to win the Daytona 500. 

There was talk that Earnhardt was cursed, destined never to win the "Great American Race". He had come close to winning several times, the most bitter defeat coming in 1990. Earnhardt was leading the race on the final lap when he cut a right rear tire. Earnhardt was forced to slow down in turn three, allowing Derrike Cope to speed past to capture the win. Every year, the burning question was "Is this Dale's year to win the Daytona 500?". Finally, in 1998, in his 20th start at Daytona, Earnhardt found himself in victory lane for the Daytona 500. 

The fact that Earnhardt perished at the one track that brought him so much frustration and happiness seemed a cruel twist of fate, made even more so by the fact that he died holding back a field of cars while Dale's son and one of Dale's best friends battled for the win.

Going back to Daytona will certainly be an emotional trip for many, even more so for the people that knew Earnhardt, who worked with him, who raced against him, who cheered for him, and for those that looked up to him. Many expect it to be hardest on his son, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who the fans are looking to to carry on his father's legacy. 

"Going back to Daytona and running the 500 will drum up some attention on my father's death," said Dale Earnhardt, Jr. "But once we race the 500 and we pull out of Daytona and carry on with the rest of the season, there'll really, really be closure. It there ever was, that will be the day."

"I'm looking forward to it. I dealt with everything back in July, getting reaclimated to the place, and getting used to being there again. Everytime we go to Daytona will be special for me, it's a great race track. I've dreamed of running there since I was a little kid, making the field for the 500 in my rookie season was probably was one of my proudest moments. Everytime we pull through the gate on the front straightaway, I just get the chills, because it's just such a beautiful place. Most people might be depressed or upset, but I'm going to keep on being upbeat and having a damn good time."

"It's going to be an emotional trip," said Richard Childress, who owned Earnhardt's #3 car. "It was emotional going back there for the test, but we have to go forward, have to take a deep breath and go forward. While we were at Daytona, pulling through the tunnel I had thoughts, landing the plane I had thoughts. Those thoughts are going to be there."

"Pulling through the tunnel, I had thoughts. Landing the airplane I had thoughts, they're going to be there. Being able to spend the years and do the thing that Dale and I did at Daytona together and the things away from the race track, it's just going to take some time."

"It is a high visibility event to come back to the Daytona 500 one year later after the tragedy," said Mark Martin, "but we have all as competitors and media dealt with it for a year, so it's not like everytime you roll into this place you dredge up this ugly monster. That ugly monster has been all over us for a year."

"He's still missed, tremendously." Dale Jarrett said, "I think because we were able to carry on and what we saw with the popularity of this sport, it really showed what an impact he had on it while he was with us."

"It'll be difficult going back there, but we're going to continue on and try to make this sport even better. Obviously, we've made it much safer than when we were at Daytona a year ago."

The skid marks are still there. Everytime you drive by those you think about it," said Kevin Harvick, who now drives the re-numbered #29 Goodwrench Monte Carlo. "That's just something you can't get away from. You think about it, and obviously you try to do everything you can to keep it off your mind but it's something that you can't escape, but it's something that you have to learn to cope with as well as you can."

Harvick took over the driver's seat Earnhardt's ride following his death. Harvick ran the remainder of the Winston Cup season as well as a full Busch Series schedule, winning the Winston Cup rookie of the year as well as the Busch championship. In 2002, he hopes to rekindle the glory the team experienced with Earnhardt.

"It's tough to live up to the reputation of this organization, let alone that Goodwrench car - the past history of that car is very deep, it's won championships, it's won races, so there's a responsibility there. There's no way, there's nobody coming, there's nobody here, there's nobody that's been here that's going to replace Dale Earnhardt." 

While Earnhardt may have been one of the most popular driver of his time in NASCAR, this is not the first time the sport has had to endure the loss of one of it's superstars. Glenn "Fireball" Roberts, thought by many to be NASCAR's first real superstar, died from his injuries following a crash at Charlotte in 1964.Alan Kulwicki, the defending 1992 Winston Cup champion, and Davey Allison, both died in incidents off the track in 1993. Neil Bonnett, one of Dale Earnhardt's best friends, died in a crash during a practice session at Daytona in 1994. Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper all died of head injuries during three separate on-track incidences in 200. 

Through all these tragic losses, the fans have rallied around the sport to show their support, even more so with Dale Earnhardt.

"He's still missed, tremendously." Dale Jarrett said, "I think because we were able to carry on and what we saw with the popularity of this sport, it really showed what an impact he had on it while he was with us."

Some of these deaths have actually helped the sport by bringing about safety changes. Roberts death in 1964 lead to the use of fuel cells in race cars, and fire retardant driver's suits. The deaths of Earnhardt, Petty, Irwin, Roper and ARCA driver Blaise Alexander lead to the mandating of head and neck restraints in all the top divisions of NASCAR. The results are safer cars, but at a an unimaginably high price.

"I think our cars are definitely safer, but, unfortunately, it's taken some tragedies -- not only Earnhardt, but Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty." Ricky Rudd said. "It's unfortunate thinking that those guys passed on before we've gotten our cars to the point where they are safer today."

Earlier this month, NASCAR unveiled a statue at Daytona International Speedway honoring the memory of Dale Earnhardt. Placed just outside the entrance to Daytona USA, the nine-foot statue captures that moment in 1998 when Earnhardt finally raised the trophy for winning the Daytona 500. In the concrete surrounding the statue are seven markers commemorating his seven Winston Cup Championships. 

Teresa Earnhardt was on hand for the unveiling of the statue of her late husband.

"Dale Earnhardt's legendary performances here at Daytona inspired people that he never even met," Teresa said. "People looked up to Dale, probably because of his own beliefs and values."

"Dale continues to inspire people today to believe in themselves and to remember that you get what you give." 

The author can be contacted nascar@autoracing1.com

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Other Editorials

Speed, Safety, Earnhardt Part 3  2/17/02

Speed, Safety, Earnhardt Part 2  2/16/02

Speed, Safety, Earnhardt Part 1  2/15/02

UAW-GM Motorsports Media Tour Day 5  1/19/02

UAW-GM Motorsports Media Tour Day 4  1/18/02

UAW-GM Motorsports Media Tour Day 3  1/17/02

UAW-GM Motorsports Media Tour Day 2  1/16/02

UAW-GM Motorsports Media Tour Day 1  1/15/02

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