The Day The Music Died Special to The VOICE by Rich Romer I watched Dale Earnhardt die on Sunday. Sitting in the Weatherly Tower on the front straight of Daytona International Speedway, I was enjoying one of the best and most competitive...
The Day The Music Died Special to The VOICE by Rich Romer
I watched Dale Earnhardt die on Sunday. Sitting in the Weatherly Tower on the front straight of Daytona International Speedway, I was enjoying one of the best and most competitive Daytona 500 races in many years. It was the culminating event in an entertaining two week series of races, practices, and qualifying sessions packaged and promoted by the track as Speedweeks 2001. There was a lot to recommend the race. Dodge had returned to stock car racing after a 16 year absence, qualified all 10 of their cars for the race, won one of the qualifying races, and placed two of its cars on the front row. New aerodynamic and engine rules restored passing to the 500 and opened up the race to most of the drivers and cars.
25 laps from the end of the 200 lap race, a spectacular crash occurred on the back straight. Coming off the second turn, Robby Gordon in his first drive for Kodak in the Number 4 car, got into the rear of Tony Stewart's Pontiac, causing him to spin into the outside wall and then across the track getting airborne, flipping and tumbling. They had been running in a pack of cars and a total of 18 cars were involved in the accident taking many of the contenders for the win out of the event. Included in the carnage were Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, and defending Winston Cup Champion Bobby Labonte. No one was injured, although Stewart, who was briefly knocked unconscious, complained of some pain in his shoulder and was taken to a nearby hospital for a CAT scan of his head, neck, and shoulder. The test showed no damage and Stewart was released to return to the track.
After a short break to clean up the debris and remove the wrecked cars, the race resumed. Coming down to the finish, Michael Waltrip, driving in his first race for Dale Earnhardt, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., also driving for his father, charged to the front of the field. They were followed by Earnhardt himself, in the familiar black Number 3, GM Goodwrench Chevrolet Monte Carlo owned by Richard Childress. Waltrip led the field onto the last lap chased by Earnhardt, Jr. As they drove off the 4th turn, it became clear that Waltrip was going to win his first race after 15 years of trying followed closely by Earnhardt, Jr. All attention shifted back to the high banked turns to see how the rest of the field was going to sort out.
And then it happened. Dale Earnhardt who had been taking a high line through the turn drove down to the middle of the track to protect his own position and to keep anyone from catching the two cars in front of him. Sterling Marlin, in a Dodge, who had been fast all day, bumped Earnhardt's rear bumper. Rusty Wallace was on the high side of both of them which removed some aerodynamic down force from Earnhardt. The front of his car wiggled, dropped down the track, and then as tried to save the car, it snapped up the track and into the outside wall collecting Kenny Shrader's Number 36 in the accident. Earnhardt hit the concrete barrier almost hear on at 180 mph. His car and Shrader's slid down the banking and came to a stop locked together on the flat at the bottom of the banking.
Shrader, who was uninjured, unstrapped from his wrecked car, climbed out and went over to check on his friend. After looking into the car, Shrader, visibly agitated, started waving his arms and signaling for the emergency and medical crews. The trauma doctor who arrived on the scene, found no pulse and that Earnhardt wasn't breathing. Emergency crews cut the roof off the car and cut through the roll cage so that they could remove him, place him in an ambulance and take him to Halifax Hospital, less than a mile from the track. After unsuccessfully trying to revive Earnhardt in the ambulance and at the hospital, the medical staff declared him dead. Shrader walked to Victory Lane to tell Waltrip of Earnhardt's death.
How could Stewart survive his accident without any significant injury and Earnhardt not? Stewart's car dissipated its energy over several seconds and 10 to 15 impacts with the wall, the ground, and other cars. The most severe impact Stewart sustained probably did not exceed 15 g's (one g equals the force of gravity). Earnhardt, however, absorbed all the impact in one blow which had to exceed 100 g's. The driver's seat is bolted into the car and Earnhardt's body was restrained in the seat by a five point harness which came across his lap, through his crotch and, across his shoulders. His head, however, was not restrained and moved out in front of his body stretching his neck until his spinal cord snapped. Further analysis revealed that the left side of his lap belt failed permitting his body and head to impact the steering wheel and steering column.
The impact of Earnhardt's death was immediate. The entire area around the track, Daytona Beach, Ormond Beach, Volusia County, which is usually a huge party after the Daytona 500 went into mourning. People in cars who didn't know one another drove around with their windows down so that they could talk about the accident and share their grief. Instant memorials popped up all over town. Earnhardt souvenirs and mementos sold out as everyone tried to get something to remember him by. Driving north on Interstate 95 the next morning was a moving tribute to the fallen hero. Billboards and marquees paid tribute to him. Cars flew Number 3 flags or had handwritten signs in their windows expressing their grief. The impact of Earnhardt's death on the broader population has been compared to the loss of Elvis Pressley, Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon, Princess Diana, and John F. Kennedy.
Earnhardt was buried in an undisclosed location at a small private ceremony for the family but the memorial service the following day was attended by 5000 invitees and televised nationally. While NASCAR will return to racing as scheduled at Rockingham, Earnhardt's Number 3 will not be there. The GM Goodwrench sponsored Chevrolet will be raced with a new paint job (white with black lettering), a new number (29), and a new driver (Kevin Harvick). Richard Childress Racing, which owns the car number, will not use the number 3 on a race car the rest of this year. What happens after that is up to Childress and NASCAR. There is a nationwide movement urging that the number be permanently retired in Earnhardt's memory.
Earnhardt's family has asked that anyone wanting to make a contribution in his memory send it to The Foundation for the Carolinas, P.O. Box 34769, Charlotte, North Carolina 28234-4769.
Racing will go on, but it be a less joyful entertainment without Dale Earnhardt--The Intimidator--who was a connection with NASCAR's roots, an active and competitive participant in its present, and in the forefront of its future.