Defining the NASCAR Decade: Dale Earnhardt and 9/11 Continue to Impact

Hank EptonCorrespondent IJanuary 4, 2011

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 15: Air Force One with US President George W. Bush on board flies past an American Flag on its' way into Daytona Internationa Airport prior to the start of the NASCAR Nextel Cup Daytona 500 on February 15, 2004 at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
Robert Laberge/Getty Images

NASCAR is just like any other endeavor. It has moments that in hindsight become the forks in the road that send the individual, group, government, or in this case, sanctioning body, down a given path.

In 62 years, NASCAR has had several defining moments. Just about any discussion of the sport marks a few of them on anyone’s list: NASCAR’s inception in 1948, the first Daytona 500 in 1959, the beginning of the modern era in 1972 with RJR’s involvement, the first televised Daytona 500 in 1979 and Richard Petty’s final win in 1984.

The NASCAR that is about to take the track for the 2011 season is wildly different than the NASCAR that Bill France Sr. envisioned so many years ago. All of the forks in the road have had a collective impact on the sport that has sent it this way or that way over the sport’s history.

In fact, the sport has changed enormously in just the last 10 years. Many of the changes we’ve seen in the last decade and the way the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series run today can be traced back to an eight month stretch back in 2001 when the decade began.

It started with the fall of one of the sport’s icons and ended with the fall of two New York City icons.

Dale Earnhardt’s passing and the events of September 11, 2001 continue to show their fingerprints on NASCAR to this very day.

“We’ve lost Dale Earnhardt”

Mike Helton’s announcement on February 18, 2001 is engraved into the memory of most of the NASCAR world.

Within the sport, there may not be a more indelible moment than the crash that killed Dale Earnhardt on the last lap of the Daytona 500.

His death is arguably one of the most important moments in the history of the sport.

Most newspapers, including the New York Times, placed the story of his passing on the front page. Magazines devoted their covers to the news, and the 24-hour news networks scrambled off to Daytona and to Charlotte to cover it.

The crash and Earnhardt’s death were enough. The moment represented the loss of the sport’s biggest star.

He was Elvis. He was John Wayne. He was Michael Jordan, Joe Montana and Wayne Gretzky.

For the uninitiated, the outpouring of grief over a fallen race car driver seemed like a curiosity.

For those inside the NASCAR bubble, his death was like the opening of a wound that for many has never fully healed. The shock over Earnhardt’s passing permeated the entire NASCAR landscape.

Perhaps Ricky Craven summed it up best at the time, “He was NASCAR.”

For a moment, it seemed impossible that NASCAR could continue without him, but the sport soldiered on, and dropped the green flag the following week at Rockingham.

Racing moved on.

Earnhardt’s death also had a more lasting impact once the shock of his death subsided. It forced NASCAR down a path of introspection that shows itself to this day.

NASCAR was put in a position where it had to react. Unlike the deaths of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, and Tony Roper that had offered warnings in the 18 months prior to the crash, Earnhardt’s death put NASCAR under a very bright media spotlight.

The public waited for NASCAR to respond.

More than a million dollars and six months later, NASCAR released its exhaustive report into the accident.

Primarily, NASCAR found that soft spots in the design of the car and the cockpit contributed greatly to the death of the seven time champion.

The sport, and primarily its cars, had to change.

Six years after the investigation, NASCAR unveiled the fruits of the reengineering of its race cars at Bristol.

The Car of Tomorrow that races today is largely the legacy of Dale Earnhardt’s death. It incorporates many of the safety features that experts found might have helped Earnhardt in turn four that afternoon at Daytona.

Crush zones were included in the car, the driver was moved inboard behind protective foam, the roof line was made higher making room for better seats, and inside that seat was a driver wearing a head and neck restraint made mandatory not long after the crash.

The cars now circled high speed ovals ringed by SAFER barriers designed to further absorb the tremendous energy unleashed by a 3,500 lb. race car traveling at close to 200 mph.

The CoT, HANS devices and SAFER barriers are probably the most visible effects of NASCAR’s work following the crash.

But despite what’s been added to the sport since 2001, there’s something more intangible that can’t be replaced.

Earnhardt was transcendent. People who had never seen a race knew who he was. He was one of the links to NASCAR’s more innocent time, before its drivers became celebrities.

When Earnhardt started, racing paid the bills. The guys behind the wheel, and certainly the guys on the pit box, knew that their collective fortunes rose and sank with the sport. Their financial well being was tied to stock car racing.

Now, one great year will set you up for life.

Earnhardt knew that his future was tied to NASCAR’s, and when he felt like the sport’s future might be a little murky, he knew where to go: Bill France Jr.

The Intimidator became the conscience of the sport. He was the guy who had the ear of NASCAR. He embraced the role. He became the custodian of its direction from the garage area as much as any driver in history.

His loss created a gaping hole in that position.

Since then, it’s been difficult to find that driver that seems to have the ear of NASCAR the way that Earnhardt did. There are some that come to mind, like Jeff Burton, but nobody has stepped forward to the degree that Dale Earnhardt did prior to his death.

In NASCAR, like other sports, there seems to be a growing divide between the sport itself and the participants. Bill France Sr. and his son thought of the sport like promoters. As a result, they were listening to the product they were promoting: the drivers in the cars and the races they put on.

Now, the sport appears to be run like any company trying to sell a product. It has a CEO in Brian France who seems to have a detachment from the sport’s day to day operation that his father and grandfather didn’t have.

They were hands on, and the sport was a benevolent monarchy. The current structure is like a Fortune 500 company looking at the ratings like a profit margin spread sheet.

The loss of Earnhardt and the detachment of the France family from the day-to-day operation of the sport have left no driver with the credentials to step inside the castle walls and no king for whom to have an audience.

That time and those roles may never return again.

The sport has outgrown the fishing trips between Dale Earnhardt and Bill France Jr. where they would talk about where the sport is and where it’s headed.

Perhaps with the loss of Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR just lost its soul. It has groped for a decade to find it again.

The soul of the entire country was changed forever just eight months after Dale Earnhardt’s death on the morning of September 11, 2001.

“America is under attack.”

White House Chief of Staff Andy Card uttered those words to President George W. Bush on September 11, 2001.

When terrorists crashed commercial airliners into buildings and the Pennsylvania countryside, it changed us as a nation.

Ten years later, our country is still a wildly different place than it was when our heads hit the pillows on September 10th.

9/11 impacted our country in profound ways, and by adversely affecting our economy, NASCAR took a hit.

The 1990’s were a booming time for NASCAR. Tracks were being built constantly. Las Vegas, Texas, Chicago, Kansas, Kentucky and Homestead are all tracks on the 2011 schedule that broke ground during the real estate boom of NASCAR in the nineties.

This year, the last of the boom tracks makes its way onto the Sprint Cup schedule when the series visits Kentucky in July.

Tracks built in the nineties account for nine of the 36 points paying races on the schedule. In more than 60 years of history, nine of the stops were born in one decade. One quarter of the points race venues have been built in one sixth of the sport’s history.

Since 2001, no new tracks capable of hosting a Sprint Cup race have broken ground. Economic uncertainty has made it hard to find anyone willing to take a risk on the investment anymore.

Economic uncertainty on a smaller scale, specifically for the fans that fill the seats, has made it harder for people to attend. Lower attendance can be blamed in part of the expense in going to the races anymore.

It goes further than the tracks on which the sport competes.

The sport runs differently. Ten years ago, it seems inconceivable that Jeff Gordon would have trouble landing a sponsor. Yet we saw just that in 2010 as he was shopped around for a new paint scheme for 2011.

The dearth of organizations willing to shell out the check for a full season sponsorship has forced many teams to change how they conduct business.

The days of one driver with one sponsor and one paint scheme are fading fast. Teams are looking for a collection of partial sponsors to piece together a budget to cover the escalating expense of running a Sprint Cup team.

Only the very top tier sponsorship packages are set in stone for the entire schedule. While a guy like Jimmie Johnson has a full season deal with Lowe’s, even a popular driver like Dale Earnhardt Jr. is driving a car with a divided sponsorship between Amp and the National Guard.

More and more, across the board, teams are splitting sponsorship up depending on the time of the year and the part of the country the race is run in to accommodate the needs of a particular partial sponsor.

It’s extended beyond the sponsors though. As teams have been forced to streamline their operations, it has left hundreds of race shop employees without work, creating the start-and-park phenomenon.

Lower budget operations have popped up around the Charlotte countryside that thrive on the limited prize money for just making a race. The glut of unemployed shop specialists have allowed them to operate on a shoestring budgets and get a car that’s capable of qualifying and then parking the car to pocket the money for running 40th.

The economic climate has extended to the Nationwide Series as well, where there are even more start and park operations.

There’s arguably another impact of the economic downturn: more Buschwacking (or Nationwidewacking).

It’s become more and more difficult to sell sponsorships for racing across the board in the tough times, but it’s even harder in the second tier Nationwide Series.

It’s a little easier to sell the sponsorship when the owner can assure the sponsor they’re courting that the car will get maximum exposure on television. The easiest way to ensure that level of exposure is to put a Cup driver in the car.

More and more in the last decade the sport has seen Cup drivers chasing the Nationwide title in cars fielded by Cup operations.

Sponsors are much more willing to devote the financial resources to a race team when they feel like they can maximize their investment with a well known driver with a brand of his (or her) own that will get the car to the front.

Look back at the 2010 season. Most of the top echelon sponsors are on the quarterpanel of a car with a Cup driver inside, or at least on a car fielded by a Cup operation. It’s made it more difficult for Nationwide start ups to go after big money sponsors because they’re being gobbled up by the Cup Lite teams.

Some of that will change this year with new rules to prevent Cup drivers from gunning for the Nationwide championship, but the sponsors are going to largely remain with the big operations.

That trend may never reverse itself, leaving start ups without funding and causing stagnation among the ownership pool of competitive cars in the support races.  

In the span of just eight months at the start of this decade, two events became forks in the road for NASCAR.

The death of Dale Earnhardt certainly hurt NASCAR as a brand. He was the face of stock car racing for those outside the sport and the conscience of it within NASCAR. And while his loss certainly created a malaise among a certain portion of NASCAR’s fan base, it’s important to remember what NASCAR was originally designed to be: a sanctioning body.

NASCAR became a better sanctioning body through painful introspection. The specifications for the cars have made the cars safer, the requirements for driver equipment are more stringent, and the sanctioning body has asked more of the tracks in terms of soft wall technology.

In that way, NASCAR is a better organization for what happened to Dale Earnhardt.

That impact won’t ever be undone.

9/11 changed us collectively as a people. Its impact on NASCAR and other sponsored sports have been a function of the economic turbulence it fostered.

The economy will bounce back, and like a rising tide NASCAR will bounce back as well. Someday there will be a flood of new sponsors and a steady stream of investors in hard hats waiting to break ground on new facilities.

Maybe in that way NASCAR is a litmus test for the health of our country. When people can all get to the races again, then it might look like a good idea to start building more tracks on which to hold them and more cars and teams to race on them.

It’s never easy to see those moments when fate will create a fork in the road ahead of time. With Earnhardt’s passing and 9/11, you can look at where we are now and see how those moments got us here as a sport.


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