Feb. 18, 2001. What more can be said about that day to a NASCAR fan?
It's a date that emotionally tests and rattles anyone in the racing community, especially those who had a connection or fondness to Ralph "Dale" Earnhardt of Kannapolis, NC. He was supposed to be virtually indestructible, walking away from some of the most grinding accidents at his lowest and putting a licking on the field at his peak.
The race that had been his most elusive prize throughout his career was his final moment as a mortal figure in an immortal status. Earnhardt defined domination, heartbreak, and absolute elation in any race he competed on at the Daytona International Speedway.
From his regular Cup ride to the IROC machines, it was at this high-speed facility where he demonstrated his amazing driving skills like the master he was in his extraordinary career. Years may have passed by, but the void from his tragedy nine years ago is still felt to this day.
His death shook up everyone in the world of sports. Wherever you were on Feb. 18, 2001, you could probably recall that moment with clarity and preciseness. No matter who your allegiance was as a fan, Earnhardt's death was unbelievable and a reality check on life.
Like most NASCAR fans, my family and I were watching the Daytona 500 at home, and it was one of the most exciting season openers we had ever seen. Lead changes were plentiful, heart rates were erratic, and our voices were about shot from cheering on our favorite racers.
While we rooted on the likes of Dale Jarrett, Jeff Gordon, and Bobby Labonte, we noticed a very strong and intimidating contender who made his presence known throughout the race.
Yep, it was "The Man In Black," who was certainly showing that age didn't matter.
As my mom kept mentioning during the 500, "He may be old, but he's sure driving like a young man." While not the most avid racing fan, she noticed how Earnhardt was rejuvenated and driving like the true seven-time Cup champion he was, not the man who struggled from 1996-1999 as a sentimental pick on race day.
Three-wide in the middle, up front, or drafting the bumper off the driver ahead of him, the 49-year-old legend was putting on quite the driving performance that was reminiscent of those championship years. It was clear that he had one of the cars to beat toward the race's conclusion.
Fans may observe that Earnhardt displayed his greatest save during the IROC opener days earlier, when he was driven off the racing surface by open-wheeler Eddie Cheever. Any other driver would have definitely flew threw the grass and crashed savagely into the turn one outside-retaining wall.
What did Earnhardt do? Oh, he did about the impossible, but then again, he seemed to defy the odds. He corrected his Pontiac Firebird, decelerating just enough so that he could drive it back onto the track, damaging his car slightly but certainly getting himself back in position to finish the race.
While he lost the race from that excursion in the grass, it was his save that proved to fans how "The Man" hadn't lost a step or two in his old age. Additionally, he made contact with Cheever's car during the cool-down lap, spinning out the '98 Indy 500 champion's machine to the approval of the fans in attendance that day.
Equally as impressive as the IROC race save was the one he had during the Daytona 500 during the "Big One" on lap 175.
The multi-car accident wiped out 19 drivers from contention, including Jarrett, Gordon, and Labonte. As for Earnhardt, he was nipped by one of the cars in the crash, but he managed to correct his almost out-of-control Chevrolet from getting collected in the junkyard heap.
Prior to the final restart on lap 179, Earnhardt and his team drivers—Michael Waltrip and son, Dale Jr.—plotted strategy in an attempt to bring home a 1-2-3 finish for the family operation. With Earnhardt in his Richard Childress Racing Chevy Monte Carlo and his DEI racers in the top five, the perfect situation seemed within grasp.
For a while, it appeared as if the fans would see a truly amazing podium finish with a family affair in place. No matter who came up on top with those drivers, the victory would have certainly been a crowd pleaser for the taking.
Waltrip had never won a Cup race in his 14-year career at that point, placing second in a race at Pocono during the 1988 season. Overshadowed by his older brother Darrell, who won his fair share of races and titles, Michael had his prime shot at finally tasting victory in the winner's circle.
Meanwhile, Earnhardt Jr. was the apple of many No. 3 fans' eyes and the one factor that could even get NASCAR's toughest racer to choke up and show his human side on the track. How emotional and neat was it to see father and son embrace and smile on national television in the April 2000 race at Texas Motor Speedway, when Junior scored his first career Cup win?
Despite the fact that I was (and still am) a devout Gordon fan, I couldn't help but find myself cheering on the Earnhardt clan at the end of the race. When the race resumed, the Nos. 3, 8, and 15 cars were definitely my picks for the win, and for those 19 laps, it sure looked like it'd be the one-two-three finish that the majority wanted.
Instead, it was a final lap that we all remember for one of the saddest moments in all of sports.
Coming to the final corner of the 2.5-mile super speedway, Earnhardt was protecting his position so that Waltrip and Dale Jr. could get to the stripe in the top two spots. A hungry pack of racers, including Sterling Marlin, Rusty Wallace, and Ken Schrader were vying for third spot, trying to bring home a solid finish for their efforts.
Suddenly, Earnhardt, who was caught in the middle lane between Marlin and Schrader, fishtailed from the racing surface toward the apron, the flat segment of the track. His Goodwrench Chevy lost traction and immediately made a bee-line for the outside retaining wall between turns three and four, crashing severely into the barrier.
Its hood was undone, smashing in the windshield and destroying the front wheel assembly of his car. Skidding across the 31 degree banking, Earnhardt's car, along with Schrader, who t-boned the No. 3 car during the frentic last lap, drove into the infield embankment at turn four.
Both machines came to a merciful stop, when Schrader had the wherewital to climb out of his Pontiac and immediately call for medical assitance for an unconscious Dale Earnhardt.
All was not right for the man who this racing fan thought was an immortal.
As they say, the rest was history, but the feeling from that day is filled with sadness, glum and some of the most painful images and sounds I've ever experienced in my life.
For years, I did jeer Earnhardt because of the supposed rivalry that existed between him and Jeff Gordon: You had the new school fans coming into the sport, which unsettled some of the older fans who felt that the golden years of racing ended once guys like Gordon entered NASCAR. I didn't understand the animosity, and therefore I stuck by my driver and thought the older racers were unappealing and distasteful figures.
Fortunately with age comes maturity and experience and I began to appreciate the careers, accomplishments, and the mere fact that guys like Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt competed for wins and titles against my favorite racer in Gordon. Without them, the races would lose their character and excitement.
Sure, Gordon was a talented driver with all the things Madison Avenue wanted, but when it came to the home-grown man who could be almost like a father figure to any fan in the stands or sitting in their couch, it was Earnhardt.
I can still recall the CNN report filed by Marty Snider during that night of February 18, when he said that many fans called up their fathers to tell them they loved them.
I remember crying for days after watching NASCAR President Mike Helton deliver the news that we all didn't want to hear that night.
"We lost Dale Earnhardt."
It made me think of how I wasn't as close to my father as I could be, often resorting to my siblings and mother when it came to anything. I always thought of my dad back then as a hard-working, no-nonsense man, and I didn't make the effort then to talk to him.
In some ways, Earnhardt was like my dad. He wasn't a man who showed affection, but underneath his "Ironman" layer was a proud papa who was happy and playful with his family and friends. The same could be said with my dad, who really just put up a front whenever he felt uncomfortable around people.
Years later, my dad is truly my best friend. We kid around a lot, listen to each other, and most of all, I feel like I have the father-son bond with him that I knew was always there. I just had to try a little harder.
In some ways, the sport sort of did the same thing, in terms of its drivers and crew members. It just had to try harder.
We gained new superstars and tracks since the passing of Earnhardt. Safety innovations exponentially increased since 2001, and the cars, in terms of protecting fans, teams, and drivers, have improved significantly.
HANS devices, pit crew members wearing helmets, SAFER barriers, and the Car of Tomorrow are some of the innovations that came along since the death of Dale Earnhardt, which may have been some of the lasting contributions from a man who roughed up many of the sport's young guns and legends.
Sadly, these features came, to an extent, at the cost of an individual who truly defined the sport during the 1980s and early '90s.
Lord knows what that man with the Cheshire cat smile and his trademark mustache could have done if he was still with us today.
Love and mercy to you, Ralph Dale Earnhardt.