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Dale Earnhardt death: NASCAR’s tragic Daytona 500 remembered

When Dale Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, it changed NASCAR forever. Jim Utter remembers what it was like to be there on that most tragic of days.

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I’m not sure what surprises me more – that it’s 20 years since Dale Earnhardt died or that I have been covering NASCAR racing even longer than that.

So much has occurred in NASCAR since I began covering the sport on a regular basis in April 1998 that it’s often hard to remember many details about any particular race weekend.

Oh, I’ll remember who won a race, or a particularly bad wreck or sometimes it may be something totally off the wall, like the giant Tropicana Orange that rolled onto the track at Chicagoland Speedway in 2004 during a qualifying session.

But I – and I’m sure everyone else who was a part of it – remember so much more from that day. The day Dale Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.

Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash

Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash

Photo by: F. Peirce Williams / Motorsport Images

It was only my third time covering the Daytona 500 for The Charlotte Observer. Back then, The Observer had two beat writers who covered NASCAR – the late David Poole and myself. The paper would also generally send down at least one photographer and a columnist for the weekend of the 500.

I remember going to the track that day with great anticipation.

For one, Dodge was returning to the Cup Series for the first time in 16 years and their drivers had swept the front row in 500 qualifying with Bill Elliott on the pole.

It was also the first race for NASCAR’s new $2.4 billion six-year television package which involved Fox Sports, FX, NBC and Turner Sports.

Having not covered the sport very long, it was hard for to me to fully grasp how this deal would change the sport, but it seemed everyone I interviewed leading up to the 500 that year felt it could be a monumental turning point for NASCAR.

Read Also:

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip

Photo by: Dave Dalesandro

There were other stories creating a “buzz” – such as Michael Waltrip gaining a new fulltime Cup ride with Dale Earnhardt Inc. (above); Kurt Busch moving up to Cup from Trucks with Roush Racing; and it was the first season since 1971 without three-time NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip as a competitor as he had moved to the Fox Sports broadcast booth.

In the days before the 500, I remember attending a very elaborate press function at a hotel on the beach in which then-Busch Series driver Kevin Harvick was introduced as future teammate of Earnhardt and Mike Skinner in the Cup Series.

Harvick was scheduled to run a handful of races in 2001 with America Online as sponsor and then become the fulltime driver of the No. 30 Chevrolet at Richard Childress Racing in 2002. I still remember the piles of computer bags and America Online internet access CDs – a hot item then – given away that night.

Dale Earnhardt leads the field

Dale Earnhardt leads the field

Photo by: Sutton Images

Race day

I learned quickly in this job that race day traffic was horrible and myself and Poole arrived around 8 a.m. on the day of the 500. It was a beautiful day, warm and quite breezy. The best part of race days is always arriving without the concern bad weather may postpone the event.

I seemed to remember spending a lot of time paying attention to the pre-race show on TV, in large part to see how Fox was going to introduce its first race of its new contract, which also happened to be the biggest race of the season.

The race itself I recall to be a very competitive one with several different drivers able to remain out front to lead. While the Dodges were thought to be lacking speed leading up to the race, Sterling Marlin and Ward Burton clearly had two of the fastest cars that day.

Dale Earnhardt leads Jeff Gordon in 2001 Daytona 500

Dale Earnhardt leads Jeff Gordon in 2001 Daytona 500

Photo by: F. Peirce Williams / Motorsport Images

Burton would get caught up in a massive accident on Lap 173 that collected nearly 20 cars and sent driver Tony Stewart to nearby Halifax Medical Center after flipping his No. 20 Chevrolet on the backstretch.

As the race wound to a close the Chevrolets of Michael Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Earnhardt Sr. had found their way to the front and were desperately trying to fend off a final charge by Marlin to win the race.

Working in the infield media center, I prepared to head to pit road and then the garage at the race’s conclusion – my typical role when both Poole and I worked a race.

There were so many cool storylines I thought to myself – Waltrip looking for his first-ever series win, Earnhardt Jr. in the mix, Earnhardt Sr. possibly earning a second Daytona 500 victory or Dodge completing a whirlwind return in its first race weekend back in NASCAR’s biggest series.

Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash

Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash

Photo by: F. Peirce Williams / Motorsport Images

As it turned out, standing near pit road, I caught a glimpse of a wreck on the last lap at Turn 4 between two cars, one of which I recognized as Ken Schrader’s. Looking to the start/finish line, I saw Michael Waltrip take the checkered flag with Earnhardt Jr. and the banged-up Ford of Rusty Wallace close behind.

Waiting for the field to come to a stop on pit road, I caught a replay of the final lap at one of the pit boxes and heard several crew guys talking about Schrader and Earnhardt Sr. getting together. The replay showed a hard hit, but in my relatively brief experience at the time, I had seen much more vicious wrecks.

Only the year before, I had been at the track when driver Kenny Irwin Jr. had died in a wreck at New Hampshire and I covered the deaths of drivers Tony Roper in a Truck race at Texas and Adam Petty, also in a wreck at New Hampshire.

Dale Earnhardt crash

Dale Earnhardt crash

Photo by: F. Peirce Williams / Motorsport Images

Silent aftermath

I didn’t think at first there was anything particularly serious about this accident but in my short time as a motorsports journalist I had learning nothing spoke louder at a race track than silence.

The more people I saw after the race, the quieter everyone seemed to be. Drivers and crew members seemed unsure of what to say, or even if to say anything. Nobody was saying why – it just seemed everyone knew something wasn’t right.

A cell phone call from Poole, who worked in the press box, let me know Earnhardt Sr. had not yet exited his No. 3 Chevrolet and it appeared safety workers were going to extricate him from his car.

Dale Earnhardt crash

Dale Earnhardt crash

Photo by: F. Peirce Williams / Motorsport Images

That certainly was not a good sign. I returned to the infield media center to begin working on a couple stories I planned to write about Earnhardt Jr. and Wallace but also reached out to sources to see if anyone had an idea how serious the accident may be.

While sitting in the media center, I remember I had reached out earlier to a friend of mine who worked with Stewart to check on his condition, as he had been taken to the hospital after the earlier wreck.

My phone rang and it was him. He was still at the hospital and he told me Stewart would be OK but he also told me he had something else to share. They were there when Earnhardt had been brought to the hospital and that he had died.

Dale Earnhardt ambulance after his crash

Dale Earnhardt ambulance after his crash

Photo by: F. Peirce Williams / Motorsport Images

Without thinking, I just blurted out, “What?” I know my colleagues around me heard me. I assured my friend that we would not be writing anything until someone made an official announcement but thanked him for the heads up.

I fired off a message to Poole of what I had been told and when I finished and looked up, my nearby colleagues looked at me with puzzlement. I told them to follow me out the front door, where I simply said: “Earnhardt’s dead. Just get ready to write.”

For the next hour or so, it seemed like nobody knew what to do. We all seemed to know what had happened, but until someone officially confirmed it, there wasn’t anything to do about it.

NASCAR officials had locked the chain-linked garage gate entrance immediately adjacent to the media center. More and more media members seemed to be filling the already crowded confines of the media center, including a slew of TV cameras. People were just standing around, waiting, but not exactly sure for what.

Then, around 6:30 or 7 p.m., NASCAR President Mike Helton arrived at the media center and addressed the crowd. It was a short statement, but I will never forget his last words: “We’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.”

I remember two things right after that – the stunned silence of the room and the way Helton’s voice cracked as he said those last words.

Slowly the noise began to pick up in the media center and everyone began getting back to work – writing not only about Michael Waltrip ending a 0-for-462 winless streak but also the untimely death of his car owner, Dale Earnhardt, on the same day.

The next several hours were a blur – writing numerous stories, planning for more in the days ahead, coordinating with other Observer reporters who were working on stories back in Charlotte, figuring out travel arrangements as follow-up press conferences were scheduled.

Fans hold up three fingers on the 3rd lap to remember Dale Earnhardt ten years after he died

Fans hold up three fingers on the 3rd lap to remember Dale Earnhardt ten years after he died

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

The way ahead

I don’t know when I finally walked back to my car in the media parking lot that night, but I do remember finding it particularly hard to grasp everything that had transpired during that day.

The spectacle of NASCAR racing had never seemed larger to me when the day started. It seemed like the dawn of a new age in the sport.

As it turned out, it was – and in many unexpected ways.

NASCAR’s TV deal did help launch itself into mainstream professional sports but with it came the scrutiny of mainstream media over the death of one of its biggest stars.

The deaths of three NASCAR drivers in 2000 seemed at first to pass with few changes but Earnhardt’s death triggered a transformation of culture and development in terms of driver safety.

Kevin Harvick

Kevin Harvick

Photo by: Richard Sloop

Careers were changed forever, like Kevin Harvick (above), who went from obscure Busch Series driver to Earnhardt’s replacement in the Cup Series in the span of about 48 hours.

Millions of NASCAR fans lost a favorite. Some chose another while others may have never watched again.

It’s been 20 years since Dale Earnhardt died and so much has changed. What will never change is how much Earnhardt’s death changed NASCAR and all of us who work in it.

Race fan paid tribute to Dale Earnhardt

Race fan paid tribute to Dale Earnhardt

Photo by: Sutton Images

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Series NASCAR Cup
Author Jim Utter
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