It’s been 22 years, but NASCAR fans can probably remember the 2001 Daytona 500 like it was yesterday.
The excitement was high for the sport coming into the new season. NASCAR had just signed a major TV deal, with the races split between Fox, NBC and TNT, meaning the sport would have more television exposure than ever before.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a new fan favorite driving for his dad’s team, Dale Earnhardt Inc. And he had a new teammate to start the season, veteran Michael Waltrip, who had shown flashes of talent throughout his career but had never been able to seal the deal with a win in any of his previous rides.
And then there was the Intimidator.
Dale Earnhardt was chasing his record-breaking 8th championship, and he was entering the season with a new energy, yet more relaxed than ever.
He had undergone back and neck surgery prior to the 2000 season to fix a ruptured disk from a crash at Talladega in 1996, and the successful surgery led to a resurgence in Earnhardt’s career. He had won 2 races during the 2000 season, but was denied his 8th championship after Bobby Labonte took home the trophy.
But even at 49 years old, Earnhardt was still one of the favorites to win the championship in 2001, and finally break Richard Petty’s record of seven Cup Series titles.
Earnhardt qualified a disappointing 27th for the Daytona 500 in his iconic #3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet, but it didn’t really matter: He was one of the best of all time at superspeedway racing, so everybody knew he would be racing for the lead before the day was over.
He managed to avoid “The Big One” on lap 173, a massive 18-car crash that sent Tony Stewart’s car flying through the air.
And with just two laps to go, Earnhardt had worked his way up to the top 3, running right behind the two cars that he owned, Michael Waltrip and his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
As the cars made their way around the track for the final lap, many noticed something strange from Earnhardt: He wasn’t trying to get up to the front to win the race, but seemed to be blocking to try to protect the lead for the two DEI cars.
When the cars entered turn three, the senior Earnhardt was trying to hold off a hard-charging Sterling Marlin. But as the cars were three wide behind him, Marlin’s car tapped the back of the #3 in the middle of the turn.
Earnhardt’s car bobbled and then turned to the right, directly into the path of an oncoming Ken Schrader.
The #3 and the #36 of Schrader drove up the track, inextricably linked together, until Earnhardt hit the outside wall at a nearly 90-degree angle.
Waltrip would go on to win the race, the first of his career, with Earnhardt Jr. finishing second.
But in the meantime, Earnhardt and Schrader drifted back down the track and came to rest in the turn four infield.
TV cameras captured Schrader unbuckling and getting out of his car before walking over to check on his friend, Dale Earnhardt.
But when he looked into the car, it immediately became clear that something was bad wrong.
Schrader began frantically waving for emergency crews, who parked beside the iconic #3 and worked to remove Earnhardt from his car.
In the TV booth, as Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip celebrated his brother’s first Cup Series win, he looked over at the scene in turn four:
“How about Dale? Is he ok?
I just hope Dale’s ok. I guess he’s alright isn’t he?
Ken Schrader knew Dale wasn’t alright though. In an interview after the race, Schrader was asked what he saw when he walked up to Earnhardt’s car – and it was clear from his reaction that something wasn’t right:
“I don’t really know. I’m not a doctor. I got the heck out of the way as soon as they got there.
I’m fine. Just thinkin’ about Dale and them guys.”
As Earnhardt’s driver celebrated in victory lane, the Intimidator was loaded into an ambulance and driven to nearby Halifax Medical Center. And the sight of the ambulance driving painfully slow out of the racetrack was just yet another clue that something was terribly wrong.
Cameras caught Dale Earnhardt Jr. running through the infield at the racetrack, and later arriving at the emergency room still in his tracksuit. And the race broadcast ended with no update on Dale’s condition.
But then, it came.
Just hours after the wreck, NASCAR President Mike Helton addressed the media, and said the words that are now etched in every NASCAR fan’s mind:
“This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements that I’ve ever personally had to make. But after the accident in turn four at the end of the Daytona 500, we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.”
The Intimidator was gone.
It didn’t seem real. One of the sport’s greatest drivers, at one of his best racetracks, in a wreck that many people didn’t think looked like it would be fatal – especially after seeing Stewart walk away after rolling his car down the backstretch just a few laps earlier.
But the angle of Earnhardt’s crash into the wall had caused a basilar skull fracture, an injury that killed Earnhardt within seconds.
In the aftermath of his death, the NASCAR world was in mourning. The following week, #3 flags filled the stands at Rockingham. And for every race that season, the TV broadcast and the fans at the track went silent on lap 3 to honor Earnhardt.
Another one of Earnhardt’s DEI drivers, Steve Park, won the race the next week – the first NASCAR Cup Series race without Earnhardt since 1981.
But some fans were angry with Sterling Marlin, and blamed him for Earnhardt’s death.
Marlin reported receiving death threats in the aftermath of the crash, to the point where Earnhardt Jr. spoke to the media and told fans to stop blaming Sterling for Earnhardt’s death:
“I couldn’t believe I had to say this, but I was like, ‘Whoever’s got a problem with Sterling or thinks Sterling has some role in this needs to get rid of that notion altogether.’
I’ve sort of felt some sympathy about that for [Sterling].”
And the sport also saw significant safety improvements after the death of one of its biggest stars.
NASCAR began mandating that drivers wear full-face helmets, something Earnhardt famously refused to do, preferring instead to stick with his open-face helmet.
They also began requiring drivers to wear a head and neck restraint device, to prevent drivers heads from moving so much in the event of a crash. And with the help of the University of Nebraska, NASCAR implemented SAFER barriers at all of the tracks, a steel and foam wall to help lessen the impacts drivers take when they hit the wall.
There was also significant controversy regarding the seatbelts used by drivers after it was reported by NASCAR that Earnhardt’s seatbelt had broken during the crash. Bill Simpson, the founder of Simpson Performance Products which had manufactured the seatbelts, received death threats and had bullets fired at his house from fans angry at Earnhardt’s death, and eventually resigned from the company he founded.
Simpson would later sue NASCAR for defamation, a lawsuit that was eventually settled and withdrawn.
As for the iconic #3 car, Earnhardt’s car owner Richard Childress decided to change the number and paint scheme on the car after Kevin Harvick was chosen to replace Earnhardt for the rest of the season.
The rookie Harvick, driving what was now the #29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet with a new white paint scheme, would score his first NASCAR Cup Series win in just his third start at Atlanta Motor Speedway, three weeks after Earnhardt’s death.
But in the most emotional moment of the rest of the 2001 season, Earnhardt’s son managed to drive his #8 Budweiser Chevy to the win the next time the sport returned to Daytona in July 2001 – a moment that’s still seen as one of the most storybook finishes of all time in NACAR history.
While the younger Earnhardt’s Daytona win in July managed to help the begin to heal, it’s hard to argue that the impact of Earnhardt’s passing – February 18, 2001 – still has on NASCAR today.
Rest in Peace to the greatest to ever do it.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Reads Emotional Note To Ken Schrader About His Dad’s Death
There’s nobody else in the world who has the memories of February 18, 2001 that Ken Schrader does.
Ken was involved in the wreck that took Dale’s life, and he was the first person to run to Dale’s car after the crash. You’ve probably seen the video of Ken looking into the car and then frantically waving to the medical crews. He knew it was bad as soon as he looked inside.
Exactly what did he see, though? We’ll never know – because Ken has refused to talk about it, even after 19 years.
And on an episode of The Dale Jr. Download podcast, Dale Jr. got the chance to tell Ken just how much that means to him.
“I’ve known you a long time and a lot of time his passed since that happened. And you’ve been a great friend to me. You’re one of only a few to see the darkest moment for my dad.
Though you have intimate knowledge of those moments, you are a keeper of that delicate information. It makes me feel close to you, Kenny. I feel pain for you to have to carry that memory, but you carry it for me, you carry it for Kelley, dad’s family, you carry it for anyone who’s ever cheered for him.
It’s a secret that you’ll keep ’til your last breath. Kenny, I know you might sometimes wish you weren’t the one, but I’m glad it was you.”
It’s clear from hearing Dale Jr. talk to Ken about something so personal that the two share a special bond over the tragic loss of Dale Sr.
And it was a special moment on the podcast for Dale Jr. to tell Ken just how much that bond means to him.