Thirteen years ago today, everything changed.
On a sunny afternoon in Daytona Beach, Florida, NASCAR’s brightest star was extinguished when Dale Earnhardt, Sr. crashed to his death on the final lap of the Daytona 500.
Earnhardt’s passing was an unprecedented event in American sports; the equivalent of Michael Jordan landing on his head after a failed dunk and dying on the court during Game Seven of the NBA Finals. It shocked NASCAR Nation – and the nation as a whole – reminding us once again of the one undeniable truth of our sport. As long as men and women strap themselves into 3,000-pound objects at speeds exceeding 200 miles per hour, horrible things can – and will -- happen.
At the time of his death, Earnhardt enjoyed an incredible degree of popularity. He was a hero of the common man, more comfortable atop a bulldozer than in a corporate boardroom. He was not, however, universally beloved. Like Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip before him, he won too often to command that kind of unadulterated adoration.
That has changed in the last 13 years. Today, it’s hard to find anyone who admits being an Earnhardt hater, or booing him from the grandstands at Bristol Motor Speedway the night he put the bumper to Terry Labonte.
It’s like all those hand-lettered “Anybody But Earnhardt” signs never existed.
Earnhardt’s “Intimidator” persona – with compulsory shades and black hat -- was cunningly crafted, and richly deserved. Early in his career, he was decidedly rough around the edges, elbowing his way toward the front of the pack in cars that were often not up to the task. Some of us go back far enough to remember him pulling into Martinsville Speedway each spring; a greasy shirted, long-haired back marker wheeling a ragtag Late Model Sportsman equally devoid of sponsorship and speed.
Back then, it was impossible to imagine that this was a man who would change the sport one day. But change it, he did.
He eventually fought his way to the Winston Cup Series, wheeling a series of underfinanced entries for a string of what were then called “independent” owners. After a season littered with crashes and blown engines at the wheel of Richard Childress’ #3 Chevy, Childress suggested that Earnhardt vacate the seat and drive for rival car owner Bud Moore.
“We’re not ready for you yet,” explained Childress, a statement that translated roughly to “we can’t afford you.”
A year later, however, Earnhardt returned. Childress’ team had raised the competitive bar, and Earnhardt was a better driver, as well. Together, they forged a partnership that produced six NASCAR Winston Cup Series championships and made both men wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.
During the height of their run, Earnhardt set himself apart from the competition. On the track, he was the yardstick by which all others were measured. “If you can run with Earnhardt,” the experts said, “you can run with anyone.” And it was true.
Off the track, he exerted an equally high degree of influence. He was the “go to guy” for media members, confident enough to deliver a scathing opinion or a withering quote, to hell with the consequences. He could walk into the NASCAR trailer unannounced and unsolicited, offering pointed opinions to men named France who were otherwise not subject to unsolicited opinions.
Much has changed since Earnhardt’s ill-fated Chevrolet nosed into the Turn Four wall at Daytona that afternoon in 2001. And happily, some things have changed for the better.
High-tech containment seats have replaced the cobbled-together, no-visible-means-of-support units of Earnhardt’s day. Open-faced helmets have been jettisoned in favor of safer, more protective full-faced models built of carbon fiber and kevlar. NASCAR mandates larger greenhouses and impact-absorbing foam in driver’s doors. More attention is paid to seat belt installation, roll bar padding and cockpit construction. SAFER barriers now cushion the concrete walls that cost Earnhardt – and so many others – their lives.
There are drivers alive today who would not be walking the earth if Earnhardt had lived.
That’s a blunt statement, and little consolation to his family, friends and legions of fans. But Michael McDowell, Elliott Sadler and other will confirm that it’s absolutely true.
God bless you, Dale. And thank you.