My worst day as a NASCAR fan came on Feb. 18, 2001. For most NASCAR fans and even casual observers, most people know this as the day of Dale Earnhardt's death. It is a day that will forever be in my mind, and one that NASCAR fans will never forget.
From 2000 until 2005, I worked as an usher at Daytona International Speedway. It was awesome! There were people in this world who would actually pay me to watch NASCAR, as long as I directed people to their seats (which wasn't hard work).
So, for the 2001 Daytona 500, it was the conclusion of my second Speedweek at Daytona, and I was thrilled that the 500 was finally here.
The 2000 Daytona 500 had been boring. With the possible exception of an NBA game I went to, it was the most boring sporting event I had ever been to.
NASCAR had made a switch to the restrictor plate race aero package at the end of the 2000 season, resulting in an exciting fall Talladega race and Dale Sr.'s last win. I was thrilled to be able to see this type of racing up close.
Because I worked at the speedway, the ushers had to be in the track much earlier than most people, and way before they opened the gates for the fans. This allowed me to sit inside the speedway and watch the track crew work as the sun came up over turns three and four.
One of the most beautiful sights in this world is to watch the sun rise up from Daytona Beach and over the speedway.
After a while, the beauty of that Sunday morning began to wear off, and I went down to the concession trailers in search of breakfast. If you've never been to a NASCAR race, there's really not much to choose from as far as breakfast foods go.
So, nachos or a smoked turkey leg is about your best option at 8 o'clock in the morning. Not a bad way to start the day.
One of the cool things about working at Daytona, was that the green usher vest everyone of us had to wear, was basically an all-access pass to most of the track. The one thing everyone of us took advantage of, was the elevator.
It may not sound like much, but when you walk up and down stairs all day long, an elevator ride to the top of the backstretch tower is pretty nice.
On my way back from breakfast, while I was waiting for the elevator, I turned around to see two guys behind me, also waiting for the elevator.
One guy was dressed in Home Depot gear (Greg Zipadelli), and the other was dressed in Interstate Batteries gear (Jimmy Makar). We all stepped into the elevator, and I heard this voice yell out "hold that door."
I stuck my hand out to keep the elevator doors from closing, and who gets in the elevator with us, but none other than Joe Gibbs. I got off the elevator before the Gibbs team, and wished them all a good day. Little did I know that later on the No. 20 car would flip down the backstretch and land on the No. 18, both of them being Gibbs' cars.
After getting back to my assigned section in the Lund Terrace on the backstretch, the fans started to make their way into the track. Other than direct people to their seats, my job was to socialize; make people comfortable at the track and be 'fan friendly' is what my supervisor had told us.
All morning I spent time talking to all kinds of fans: Earnhardt fans, DJ fans, Gordon fans, everyone.
One lady I met stood and looked out over the track for at least ten minutes without saying a word. Finally she turned to me and told me the story of how this was this first Daytona 500 she would see without her father.
And then it hit me: the year before they had been there, her father was in a wheelchair, and they had seats at the top of my section. I remembered them, because during the 2000 race, her father had asked me to wheel him out from under the shade of the tower to the sunshine, if even for a little while.
The lady told me that her father had passed away four days after the 2000 Daytona 500. It was people like this I'll never forget.
A good amount of time had passed, and it was getting close to start time. During driver introductions, there were periods of dead silence while lesser known drivers were introduced, until Jeff Gordon.
I knew people didn't like him, but I didn't remember it being that bad, until his name was called. A few more drivers were introduced, and then he came out: Dale Earnhardt.
Much like when Michael Jordan was introduced as a 6'6" guard from North Carolina, when the PA announcer came on and said: "From Kannapolis, North Carolina. Seven-time Winston Cup Champion..." the crowd went crazy.
The people booing him were outdone by fans cheering for him, but no one was quiet. Everyone had an opinion in some form.
The race itself was awesome. This was the kind of NASCAR racing I loved to watch: lead changes, three wide, door to door, Earnhardt in the lead, etc. Never once did it occur to me or anyone around me just how unsafe it was for the drivers to ride around so close to one another.
All we knew was that the fans were having a great time, and I could focus on watching the race. I liked the 500 better than the Pepsi 400, because it seemed like there were more drunks I had to deal with in the summer than in February.
Later in the race, as I was helping an older lady back to her seat, I saw a flash of orange in my peripheral vision that happened to be Tony Stewart's car flying through the air. Everyone immediately focused on 'The Big One.' It was spectacular, and it all happened right in front of me.
Once the carnage stopped, and things began to sort themselves out, the cars who had made it through began to come back around the track, and I saw that not one, but both Earnhardt's had made it through with Michael Waltrip in the lead.
I just knew that Dale Sr. was going to win. There was no way that a guy who had never won before and Dale Jr. were going to hold off the Intimidator. I looked over at another usher, who had on a No. 24 hat, and I pointed at my No. 3 hat. He just shook his head and smiled at me.
The red flag had been lifted once the track had been cleaned up and it was time to go back to racing. The last few laps were tight, hard racing, with Michael Waltrip holding off the field, and I waited for Dale Sr. to make his move that never came.
As soon as it got down to the last lap, and I realized Dale Sr. wasn't going to win, I took my vest off and got ready to leave. I watched the wreck happen on the other side of the track, and thought to myself 'maybe next year,' and proceeded to leave to go turn my vest in and go home.
Little did I know, that I had just seen the last race of Dale Earnhardt's career. It wasn't until I got into line for the shuttle back to the parking lot that I heard the news: Dale Earnhardt was gone. People all around me started to confirm the news either by their radios or their cell phones.
Immediately, people started crying. Some people were skeptical. One guy next to me said that if it were true, he would never watch the recording of the race he had waiting for him at home.
NASCAR for me would never be the same. Dale Earnhardt was my driver. He was the reason I started watching NASCAR in the first place. I drove home that day from Daytona in total silence.
There was nothing I could listen to that would make me feel any better. It was time to let go of a legend. All of the good things that had happened during that day were wiped away completely.
It was my worst day as a NASCAR fan.