The Intimidator earned his nickname from his take-no-prisoners driving style that led him to a record-tying seven NASCAR Cup Series championships, but he also lived up to it time and time again with his grit behind the wheel.
Back in 1997, there was the iconic moment in the Daytona 500 when Earnhardt flipped his car down the backstretch. But when he got to the ambulance, he looked at his car and realized the wheels were still on it – so he got out of the ambulance and told the tow truck drivers to unhook his badly-mangled car so he could get back in the race.
It took a lot to get Dale out from behind the wheel of his race car.
But just a year prior, that’s what he had to do for the first time in his career.
Earnhardt had been badly injured during a crash at Talladega in 1996. After contact between Ernie Irvan and Sterling Marlin sent the #3 car hard into the outside wall, Earnhardt had to be cut out of his car after the crash. He would be transported to a nearby hospital, where he was diagnosed with a broken sternum and collarbone.
It was the kind of injury that would ordinarily keep a driver out of his car for an extended period of time. But not Dale Earnhardt.
NASCAR returned to Indianapolis Motor Speedway the following week, where Earnhardt had won the Brickyard 400 the year before. And he was anxious to try to go for two in a row.
But Earnhardt’s team was concerned about his injuries, and what would happen if he were in another wreck at the high-speed Brickyard. His car owner Richard Childress, along with his wife Teresa, had tried to convince Earnhardt to sit out the race entirely. But that wasn’t an option for Dale.
So the decision was made that Earnhardt would start the race so that he would be credited with the championship points for the race, but would then get out of his car mid-race and be replaced by Mike Skinner so that his body could heal from his injuries.
It wasn’t a plan that Earnhardt was exactly happy about. He stayed up the night before the race watching Clint Eastwood movies, thinking that he might change his mind and decide to run the entire race.
But when a caution flew on lap five, Earnhardt brought the #3 car down pit road, and for the first time in his career he turned his race car over to another driver.
In an interview on pit road after getting out of the car, you can hear the pain in Earnhardt’s voice – not from his injuries, but from having to get out of his car and see somebody else drive it:
“The car’s real comfortable and I wasn’t in much pain riding along there. But the plan was to get him in there just in case anything happened I wouldn’t hurt myself anymore.”
And Earnhardt was nearly in tears as he reflected on getting out of the car:
“Dadgum it was hard to get out of there. I mean, this is my life right here.”
Man, that’s tough to watch. But if anything shows you just how passionate Earnhardt was about racing, it’s this interview.