Friday, February 18, 2011

February 18, 2001: Death at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - You didn't have to be a racing fan to have the news hit home. In fact, you barely had to follow sports at all. Many people who had never seen a stock car had heard of the name Dale Earnhardt and at least heard of the Daytona 500. So to hear the news from February 18, 2001, was as shocking as it gets, the headline flashing across websites hitting you like a punch to the gut: Earnhardt killed at Daytona.

You don't have to know much about NASCAR to understand that. The sport's biggest star killed in the sports biggest race. It was like Babe Ruth having a heart attack and dying during a World Series game, like Joe Montana getting killed by a hit during the Super Bowl. But then if you cared enough to get the details of what happened, it gets even more chilling; Earnhardt's death happened on the final lap, as he was trying to keep competitors away from his race-leading teammates. Now change those previous analogies: it would be like Ruth having that heart attack between third base and home plate after hitting a walk-off home run, or Montana suffering that hit a split second after throwing the game-winning touchdown pass.

As shocking as the news was people who don't follow racing probably weren't too entirely surprised. After all, crashes happen all the time in car races - isn't that the allure of them? - so you could say that NASCAR got lucky that it had been so long since a crash killed one of its big stars.

But then people looked at a replay of the crash and it looked ... well, pedestrian. There have been many crashes replayed countless times that looked much, much worse that ended with the driver walking away shaking his head. So how did this crash kill Earnhardt? There was only one other car involved, and that car hit him on the passenger side. Aren't those walls padded, the cars filled with impeccable safety devices? You'd think a simple crash into the wall wouldn't be fatal.

But when that simple crash into the wall is nearly head-on, at 160 miles an hour, it's a different story. He hit the wall at the same time he was hit by the car coming from behind, causing the car to crack. The force of the crash caused the hood to fly up and crash into the windshield. In short, Earnhardt never had a chance. He was dead before the paramedics got to him.

Earnhardt's death threw NASCAR into unprecedented mourning. The same people who were overcome with joy when Earnhardt finally won his first Daytona 500 were shocked into sadness. For the rest of the year, all race personnel, from drivers to fans to announcers, kept completely silent on the third lap of every race to honor Earnhardt and his number 3. To this day, he is mourned like no driver before him.

His death also brought sweeping changes, starting with the investigation into his death. There was both a police investigation and a NASCAR-sponsored one, leading to graphic, detailed descriptions of the fatal injuries he suffered. Earnhardt refused to wear the Head-and-Neck Support device designed to prevent injuries such as those he suffered; after he died, the HANS device became mandatory. Many of the changes had been discussed previously, especially after three NASCAR drivers were killed in 2000 alone, but it was Earnhardt's death that sped up the process.

Earnhardt is still mourned in NASCAR circles, is still considered one of the more popular drivers in its history. His son, Dale Jr., who finished second the day his father died, retains some of that popularity today. Earnhardt's death on the final lap in 2001 has become the most stunning and memorable moment in NASCAR history.

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