I still can’t believe it’s been ten years since Dale Earnhardt passed away on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. I don’t know where the time went because it doesn’t feel like it’s been a decade since he, Kenny Irwin Jr., Tony Roper and Adam Petty all perished in racing accidents within a year of each other. What was I doing on the day Dale died? Believe it or not I didn’t see the wreck when it happened.
That afternoon I was at home watching the Daytona 500 live on Fox when halfway through the race a friend of mine called me to ask if I wanted to put in a few hours of overtime. Back then I had a very well paying retail sales job, so I couldn’t refuse the chance to make a quick hundred dollars or two for about four hours of work. At lap 120 I turned off the television and left my apartment well before Tony Stewart flipped and tumbled through the air on the backstretch.
While I was away from home I made sure I was in my own cone of silence. At work I was nowhere near a radio or a television, and on my way to and from the retail store I listened to some old CDs so I wouldn’t accidentally hear the results of the race.
When I got home that evening, I watched the final 79 laps and then the wreck that changed the racing world happened.
When I saw Ken Schrader climb out of his wrecked M&M’s Pontiac, approach Dale’s car and then frantically signal for safety crews to assist Dale, I knew he was in serious trouble. I had witnessed on live television the near-fatal wreck of Stanley Smith at Talladega eight years earlier and Smith collided with the unforgiving outside wall in an eerily similar fashion. Smith had suffered a severe head injury, the same type of injury that claimed the lives of Irwin Jr., Roper and Petty seven years later, and I was afraid that’s what had happened to Dale. When I watched footage of Dale’s ambulance drive to nearby Halifax Medical Center at a speed that made Al Cowlings look like he was speeding down Interstate 405 with a “police escort”, I already knew Dale and his aura of invincibility were gone forever.
QUESTION: Where were you when Dale died?