With the 2011 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona almost here I couldn’t help but think of a racer who not only participated in the endurance race but lost his life at the legendary track on February 18, 2001. Can you believe it’s almost been ten years since we lost Dale Earnhardt?
After Ernie Irvan was forced into retirement during the 1999 Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) season I needed a new driver to follow and I wanted someone who was as aggressive as Irvan. Who else could I choose? Certainly not Jeff Gordon. He wins races but he won’t run over his mother for an extra five points in the standings. Tony Stewart? He was a rookie and hadn’t established himself as Dale’s heir apparent in ability and aggressiveness yet.
How did I end up picking “The Intimidator”? The week before Irvan suffered career-ending injuries in a practice accident in Michigan, Dale shoved Terry Labonte out of his way during the final lap of the appropriately named Goody’s Headache Powder 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway and cruised to victory. The stands were full of fans wearing black t-shirts and jackets and they cheered for Dale like a bunch of maniacs. It was so surreal watching everything on TV that for a moment I couldn’t tell the difference between the fans in the stands in Bristol that day and a brawling Raider Nation at the Los Angeles Coliseum earlier that decade.
After that race I found my new favorite driver.
What is Dale Sr.’s connection to the Rolex race? Two weeks before his death in the 2001 Daytona 500, both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and he drove the #3 Goodwrench Corvette C5-R race car along with Kelly Collins and Andy Pilgrim in that year’s Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. It was the only time race fans ever got to see Dale in a sports car and I’m certain he would have made more appearances if he were still alive. I remember the look on his face when he was in the garage in between driving stints that weekend. He looked like he was genuinely having fun racing that Corvette. That mischievous twinkle in his eye was there, and he performed quite admirably in a racing series he had no prior experience in.
It’s because of that race I got hooked on road racing and I watch the Grand-Am and the American Le Mans series whenever they’re on television.