Time is supposed to help you heal, though still till this day ten years later, I still feel sadness when I think of Dale Earnhardt. Maybe I don’t cry as hard, or maybe I don’t even cry at all, though I still feel the sadness.
The last few laps of the 2001 Daytona 500, I was cheering for Michael Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Dale Earnhardt to finish one-two-three. Part of that run at the end seemed strange to me and as many have said, it seemed strange to them. Earnhardt, known for being offensive and making daring moves to win, was in protection mode for his team cars. Ty Norris, who was vice president at DEI and spotter for Dale Jr. at the time, tells the tale of that in how he, Chuck Joyce and Danny Culler were working together.
“I was spotting for Junior and the whole time, Michael’s spotter Chuck (Joyce) and I and Danny Culler, who was spotting for Dale, were coordinating,” Norris told the Hampton Roads. “We were talking and discussing.
“I remember coordinating everything that was going on just a little bit. Dale kept telling Danny to tell us to stay in line. Danny kept telling me that Dale was not trying to pass. Every time he would sneak down, Dale Jr. would get nervous and he was just basically was trying to hold everybody else off and just be those three guys racing for the win. A lot of people say that Dale spent the entire race blocking for Dale Jr. and Michael and it certainly looked that way. I think he just wanted to come down to the last lap where those three guys could compete for the win. I’m not so sure if Dale had the run, he would probably have tried to pass them, but, at the same time, he was trying to do all the right things to make sure that it was just those three (and he was also trying to get air on the front of his car).”
It is something that strangely bugs me even to this day with how he changed his nature of driving in that race and what happened later on. Part of it, if you thought about, was the discovery that working as a team can help towards winning restrictor plate races. Maybe he was the first to discover the concept, like many other parts of restrictor plate racing.
As the two Dale Earnhardt Incorporated (now Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing) cars headed through three and four, I knew it’d be one-two and Waltrip would win. Then the wreck happened in turn four, but I thought he’d be okay. We’d seen him walk away from terrible wrecks before.
Darrell Waltrip’s words of calling those final laps with, “Mikey, you got him, you got him. Mikey!” still ring in my head to this day. Those words looked to be the strongest Daytona 500 winning call since Ned Jarrett in 1993. This was a big moment for Michael Waltrip, as it was the first win of Cup series career – his first win in 462 starts.
Downplaying everything about, though, was the emotion of the words, “I hope Dale is okay. He’ll be okay, right?” Those words tied a knot in my stomach even at the age of 10. You could feel his own worry overcome his professionalism as a broadcaster.
Played in front of the cameras and the eyes of the media, Waltrip went forward with his celebration as he was unaware of the severity of the accident. He only found out through his friend and the other driver involved in the accident, Ken Schrader.
“I grab him and I said, ‘Can you believe this Schrader?’” Waltrip said. “I’m smiling and I’m happy. All of a sudden he says something to me and I go, ‘What?’
“What he said was, ‘It was not good.’ And I said, ‘What’s not good?’ And he said, ‘Dale. It’s not good.’ And then he just said, ‘I love you’ and walked off.”
The news started to slowly sink into victory lane, one step at a time.
“I knew something was wrong because there was no Earnhardt in Victory Lane. There was no Dale Jr., there was no Teresa [Earnhardt, Dale’s wife], there was no Dale,” Ty Norris, who was vice president of DEI at the time, said. “They were all there and I couldn’t understand why they weren’t in victory lane. And so I kind of turned away and got the champion’s trophy and we had our picture taken with that and I remember being interviewed there saying, ‘This isn’t right. This is Dale’s trophy, not mine, but I’ll hold it up.’
“And then I turned around and saw Schrader walk into victory lane and I saw Michael’s face change. … I remember when I saw his face change and I asked him what Schrader said and he said, ‘It’s not good.’
“‘Not good’ is he’s mad because he broke a leg or something.”
Though following the victory lane celebrations, Norris was made aware of the news as NASCAR officials called him to the trailer to tell him what had happened.
As for the fans finding out, everybody probably recalls Mike Helton’s announcement next when he says, “We’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.” I instantly broke down into tears as my emotions took over. How could one of my heroes die? Heroes aren’t supposed to die!
The next coming weeks and months proved to be trying, yet hopeful. For many fans, it was hard to watch a race due to sadness, though certain particular races helped in the method of getting through those times.
The first race after Daytona was at Rockingham. The Sunday they were supposed to race, it rained, symbolizing everybody’s sadness. In a way, I saw it as maybe the rain was the racing gods crying with us, understanding our pain, though trying to signify it beyond our understanding. Maybe that was why there was a cloud in the shape of three above Dale Earnhardt Incorporated the Monday after the Daytona 500.
So the race ran Monday and the first laps caused more emotional turmoil due to Dale Jr.’s wreck. He was already suffering from the pain of loss. How could he suffer more?
“When I saw it, it made me almost vomit,” Norris said. “I couldn’t believe what I just saw. When he got hooked and turned into the wall, it just gave me the flashback to the week before.
“You thought that car that wrecked at Rockingham was black with a three on it and not red with an eight. It was pretty eerie.”
Though thinking back to that now, maybe it was to let him be able to go home to his family and spend the time he needed with them. Heart ache is best dealt with in the arms of those you love, so allowing him to be with them maybe eased the pain a little.
As Norris tells it, they could have fixed the car, but chose not to.
“I think after that happened, they probably could have worked to fix that car, but they just wanted to get home,” Norris says. “Junior didn’t want to get in the car. It was just pack it up, let’s go. I remember that vividly because I could just not believe the similarities.”
Earnhardt Jr. spoke of the wreck during the media tour this year, saying it did not matter as, “It didn’t break my heart any worse than it was already broken. I couldn’t feel any worse than I was feeling.”
Earnhardt said he only went to Rockingham because he felt it was his responsibility to go.
“After (the accident), I never wanted to see another racetrack or race car again,” he said. “But after about a week, I got to thinking: ‘What else am I going to do? My dad gave me this opportunity; I’d be foolish not to (keep going).’”
However, the most significant moment that many remember was the ending and the winner. Steve Park came from a couple seconds behind in the closing laps to pass Bobby Labonte near the end and win the race for everybody at Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. This race helped to ease the pain. It allowed not only the fans, but those Dale Earnhardt Incorporated employees to work through healing together.
Ty Norris said during The Day special on SPEED, that after Earnhardt’s death, they told the employees they could go home if they wanted to be with their families the day after. To his surprise, not a single person left as they all wanted to be there for each other and their way to work through it was to go to Rockingham and do their best.
The healing, in Norris’ opinion, began with that win and what happened that evening at DEI.
“We had a tradition [after wins] that we would raise the checkered flag,” Norris said. “So the checkered flag had to be at [half-staff] all week after the 500 win for obvious reasons. When we won that [Rockingham] race on Monday [delayed from Sunday because of rain], all the employees went out to the flag stand and [we] raised the checkered flag all the way to the top and everyone just cried."
“You felt like you were going to be OK as a race team. You have to deal with the life part, but the race team, we felt like we were going to be OK.”
The following weekend they headed to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, in which Jeff Gordon took the checkered flag. When you looked at it on the surface, it looked just like another win, though looking back now, it was significant for the entire picture. Earnhardt was always thought of as an everyman while Gordon was the new-generation, celebrity type. It was that contrast that had fans reacting in a way that brought a feud between them. Las Vegas seemed to be the perfect place out of all places for a celebrity-type win, considering the glitz and glamour that Vegas is known for.
After that, the healing process eased for the Richard Childress Racing bunch as Harvick beat Gordon barely to the line at Atlanta. Just as Earnhardt beat Labonte the year before. It allowed the Richard Childress Racing team to see they could continue on, as the Dale Earnhardt Incorporated team had seen at Rockingham. When Richard Childress Racing rolled out the No. 29 car, I applauded them for bringing out a new number and going with white instead of black, due to how the emotions were at that time.
The course of actions may not have happened as it played out as Childress was thinking of shutting down operations after the accident.
“Probably all the way up to Tuesday (after the accident),” Childress told the Hampton Roads. “Sunday night. Definitely. My wife and I talked about it. Monday, I talked about it and I thought about a lot of things. Tuesday, I was out on the dock by myself at Bill France Jr.’s house and some thoughts came back from an old hunting trip and I knew i had to (continue).”
During a hunting trip to New Mexico, Childress and Earnhardt were guiding horses up a mountain when Childress’ slipped, almost killing Childress.
“We got back to camp that night,” Childress said. “Having a cocktail around the fireplace that night, I said, “Dale, you know if I got killed on that mountain, you would have to race Phoenix (the next race). We looked at each other and he said, “If it ever happens to me, you better run.”
Through all this, I was still looking towards Earnhardt Jr. to have his moment where everybody knew it’d be okay for him. That started to come at Texas, where he won the pole and finished eighth. But the moment that everybody still recalls was the 2001 Pepsi 400.
When it came to returning to Daytona, emotions were high as everybody fought with their memories of the February race. As the race went on, I watched him dominate and take control, leading the pack like his dad.
Then came those final seven laps where he sat back in sixth. It was make or break time. Everybody pretty much knew how it would end. He made it through the pack, and scored the victory with Alan Bestwick’s call, “Coming from sixth to first in the closing laps using lessons learned from his father to score the victory.”
It was also where we saw the biggest of emotions come out with what Alan Bestwick called, “Storybook ending.” Michael and Dale Jr. hugged in the infield, symbolizing that they’d both be okay and that they could celebrate this together, like they had wanted to in February. Benny Parsons said, “He went to perfect place. There was no other place he could’ve went to.” Those words fit perfect at that moment as he was right, it was the right place for all the emotions to come together. As Waltrip spoke of during The Day special, it was a win of redemption and a win that signified to him that through it all, it’d be okay. Earnhardt’s win at Daytona is what started it for him.
As this year marks the 10th anniversary of Earnhardt’s death, maybe as a group fans can begin to move forward. If it is possible, maybe the fans can begin to transition to new stars as everything got put down during Speedweeks.