Even 12 Years After His Death, Dale Earnhardt's Memory Is Still Very Much Alive

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistFebruary 18, 2013

15 Feb 1998: Dale Earnhardt celebrates after winning the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida.
David Taylor/Getty Images

It remains hard to believe that 12 years ago today—February 18, 2001—Dale Earnhardt was taken from us.

Even though 4,383 days have passed since his death, it still seems like yesterday that one of NASCAR's all-time greats perished in one of the most tragic wrecks in the sport's history—killed on the last turn of the last lap of the sport's biggest race, the Daytona 500.

It seemed like just another typical NASCAR wreck, yet wound up being anything but.

A nearly head-on crash into the outside retaining wall at Daytona International Speedway, the kind of wreck that countless others have walked away from, inexplicably claimed NASCAR's Superman.

How many of us still remember when NASCAR president Mike Helton, mightily trying to remain stoic while holding back a flood of tears, announced an hour after the crash those most searing words: "We've lost Dale Earnhardt."

The fierce competitor, known as The Intimidator, was one of the sport's biggest superstars of all time, winner of a record-tying seven Cup championships and 76 races, was gone in a heartbeat.

Countless fans that cheered for years for the steely-eyed driver of the fabled No. 3 Chevrolet reacted as if they had lost a close family member—and to his most ardent of his fans, Earnhardt truly felt like kin.

The man with the huge cookie duster mustache who left the cotton mills of Kannapolis, N.C., to earn his fame in fortune in NASCAR, who had to fight for everything he ever earned as a race car driver, left a huge and massive void that to this day has never been completely filled.

With millions who were stunned at his unexpected passing at the far-too-young age of 49, it's not surprising that many of Earnhardt's most diehard fans ultimately transferred their loyalty to his son and namesake, Ralph Dale Earnhardt Jr.

As if the pressure of coping with his father's tragic loss wasn't enough, the younger Earnhardt was forced to shoulder the burden of carrying on and living up to his father's legacy.

While he has been able to do the former, being named NASCAR's Most Popular Driver for the last 10 years, the latter has not been as easy.

Dale Jr. has yet to win what his and many of his father's former fans have hungrily longed for over the last 12 years—a Sprint Cup championship. And now at the age of 37, he may never will.

After winning 15 Cup races in his first five seasons, Junior has tailed off dramatically, managing just four additional victories in the last eight seasons.

While he carries the same famous name, from a performance standpoint, the younger Earnhardt will likely never come close to equaling the career of his father.

One has to wonder how different the younger Earnhardt's career may have turned out if his father had survived.

To illustrate the elder Earnhardt's popularity, fans still mark the day of his death with reverence. No other NASCAR driver that has perished behind the wheel has ever been remembered so solemnly or for so long.

To this day, more than a decade later, fans still can't completely let go of the man and his legacy.

How else do you explain why Earnhardt-related clothing and memorabilia continue to be among the sport's biggest sellers, and why souvenir trailers carrying Earnhardt legacy merchandise at every Sprint Cup race remain jammed with nearly as many fans as when he was alive?

It's almost as if the man they called The Big E is still with us. While he has passed on, his life, accomplishments and the memories he left continue to live on.

Despite countless hours of investigating, probing and reconstructing the crash, how Earnhardt died still doesn't make sense to many.

Instead of going for what had the potential to be his second Daytona 500 win, Earnhardt (in uncharacteristic fashion) played blocker for then-DEI driver and eventual race winner Michael Waltrip and runner-up, Dale Jr.

In letting Waltrip and Junior enjoy their day in the sun, it ultimately cost Earnhardt his life.

His death shocked not only the NASCAR community but also the world as a whole, in many ways similar to the music world losing Elvis Presley.

I still vividly recall Earnhardt's near-prophetic words, just hours before his death, in a pre-race TV interview on Fox Sports:

"You're gonna see something you probably have never seen on Fox," Earnhardt said with a smirk on his face. In some way, you almost have to wonder if he subconsciously knew his time on earth was about to come to an end and that he had accepted God's plan and fate for him.

If there's some consolation to take in Earnhardt's death, it's that he did not die in vain. His death brought about the largest safety initiative ever seen in any form of motorsports, including:

- Development of so-called soft walls (otherwise known as SAFER barriers) that greatly reduced the impact and resulting damage to driver and car in a crash.

- Head and neck restraint systems, most commonly known as HANS devices, that keep drivers' heads and necks near-immobile in order to lessen movement forward or side to side in a crash. A significant cause of Earnhardt's death was due to the violent movement of his neck upon impact.

- Similar to black boxes in airplanes, in-car data recorders were developed and installed in every car and truck in NASCAR's three professional series so that engineers could study crash data to make even further safety refinements as needed.

- The development of a state of the art race car that has been continually updated to keep drivers as safe as possible.

The results speak for themselves.

Since Earnhardt's passing—the fourth NASCAR driver to die from a crash in a nine-month period, including Adam Petty, the grandson of the legendary Richard Petty—no other drivers in the Sprint Cup, Nationwide or Camping World Truck series have died behind the wheel.

They have Earnhardt to thank for that, for it was his death that prompted NASCAR to take action on safety. If their biggest, seemingly most invincible star could die, anyone could.

Today, the only other major motorsports series that has been death-free longer than NASCAR has been Formula One, dating back to 1994 and the loss of Brazilian great Ayrton Senna.

Other forms of motorsports have not fared as well since Earnhardt's death:

- IndyCar has lost three drivers: Tony Renna (2003), Paul Dana (2006) and Dan Wheldon (2011).

- National Hot Rod Association drag racing has lost four pro drivers: John Lingenfelter (2003), Darrell Russell (2004), Eric Medlen (2007) and Scott Kalitta (2008).

Even with all the time that has passed, understanding and coming to terms with Earnhardt's death just doesn't seem to get any easier. And today, as we once again mark his passing, one wonders if it ever will.

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski


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