Eleven years ago today at Daytona International Speedway, NASCAR changed forever.
|The moment that changed everything.|
On the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt was hurled to his death in a crash that seemed incapable of destroying the front clip of his iconic, black Goodwrench Chevrolet, much less one of the greatest stars the sport has ever known.
Eleven years. It seems like only yesterday, and yet, so much has changed.
In the time since Earnhardt’s passing , head and neck restraints have become status quo in the sport; a mandatory, life-saving part of every driver’s on-track wardrobe. Open-face helmets are now as common as leather Cromwells, relegated to racing’s scrap heap in favor of more protective, full-face models built of carbon fiber and impact-absorbing foam. Seat technology has advanced at light speed, enveloping drivers in a protective cocoon undreamt of in Earnhardt’s day and holding them safe against even the most violent impacts. Nylon netting encases drivers from above and all sides, keeping their extremities in place during crashes, while preventing potentially lethal projectiles from entering the cockpit. Merciless concrete walls have been largely replaced by high-tech SAFER barriers that bend and yield to the assault of an out-of-control race car, transferring G-forces through their aluminum and foam-rubber infrastructure, rather than to the driver. NASCAR has mandated changes in car construction as well; enlarging the greenhouse and moving drivers toward the center of the chassis, further from harm.
|So much has changed.|
Perhaps all those advances would have occurred without the wake-up call Earnhardt’s death provided. It seems clear, though --at the very least -- that the events of February 18, 2001 accelerated the pace of safety exponentially.
Was it worth it? Certainly not.
This sport mourns the passing of Dale Earnhardt with the same deep ache in the chest it did on that dark day in 2001. NASCAR has not been the same without The Man in Black, and it will never be. He was our leader, our spokesman; a man who could crystallize complex, emotional arguments into a monosyllabic kernel of indisputable truth that settled most issues instantly, once and for all.
We are worse without him in so many ways. But in other, extremely important areas, we are better for his passing.
|Thank you, Dale.|
Michael McDowell rode out a horrifying qualifying crash at Texas Motor Speedway in 2008, hammering the wall head-on before barrel-rolling at least eight times in a maelstrom of flame and flying steel. That same month, Jeff Gordon attempted to tear down the inside retaining wall at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, turning the nose of his DuPont Chevrolet into a grotesque work of vehicular pop art. Two years ago, Elliott Sadler sailed face-first into the wall at Pocono Raceway at 170 mph, tearing the engine from his Ford and depositing it 30 yards away in the infield grass. After riding out a pair of 190-mph Talladega fliers earlier in his career, Sadler lost nothing but his breath in a Pocono crash he called “definitely the hardest hit I’ve ever taken in a race car.
“If I can walk away from that,“ he said, “the car did its job.”
A lot has changed since February 18, 2001.
For the better.
Thank you, Dale.