If you’re a NASCAR fan, you can probably still remember everything about the day that Dale Earnhardt died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
I know I can: I was 12 years old, and I still remember thinking “Oh, he’s going to be fine, I’ve seen wrecks that look a lot worse.”
It’s the same thing that a lot of NASCAR fans were thinking. He was the Intimidator. The toughest guy in NASCAR. There’s no way anything could happen to him.
And then I remember my shock when I heard those infamous words from NASCAR President Mike Helton a couple hours later:
“After the accident in turn four at the Daytona 500, we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.”
But there’s nobody else in the world who has the memories of that day that Ken Schrader does.
Kenny was involved in the wreck that took Dale’s life, plowing into the side of Earnhardt’s car as it went sliding up in front of him after Earnhardt received a bump from Sterling Marlin.
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 crew. 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.
Kenny has explained on many occasions that he’ll never talk about what he saw that day, unless Dale Earnhardt Jr. or his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, ask him about it.
And on an episode of his Dale Jr. Download podcast, Junior got the chance to tell Kenny just how much that means to him.
Choking back tears, Earnhardt Jr. read the emotional note that he wrote to Kenny about their shared bond:
“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.
"I feel pain for you to have to carry that memory, but you carry it for me… you carry it for anyone who's ever cheered for him."
Dale Jr. On Schrader Taking Him To A Strip Club When He Was 16
A rite of passage.
Imagine growing up the son of Dale Earnhardt. You know that your dad is one of the greatest race car drivers of all time, one of the biggest names in NASCAR, and a tough son of a bitch at that.
But you’re still a teenage boy who wants to do teenage boy things – like sneaking into a strip club.
On an episode of the Dale Jr. Download, Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat down with former NASCAR driver Ken Schrader, and the two recalled an epic trip that they took together that ended with a trip to the gentlemen’s club and one pissed off father.
Junior was sixteen at the time, and says that he didn’t spend much time hanging out with his dad or his team.
But Ken Schrader, one of his dad’s good friends, invited Junior out on the road with him for a week as he was going around to various races.
“We was just talking and I said ‘We oughta take Junior on a trip with us, we’ll just go racing all week.’
And he just looked at me. And I said, ‘Racing.’
And he knew. He knew what was going to happen.”
Well what was about to happen was what Dale Jr. calls one of the greatest weeks of his life.
Dale Jr. flew out to meet Schrader at the first race in St. Louis. And after Kenny won the race, his team was hanging around with a cooler full of beer.
Junior says that he went into the RV when Schrader’s wife Ann offered him a beer too:
“I was like, ‘Oh I can’t drink a beer.’ And she goes, ‘Yeah you can!’ And I said, ‘Well I don’t want anybody to know I’m drinking a beer.’
She goes, ‘Well you can just pour it in this cup.’ So she poured me a beer in a Dixie cup.
She was the bad influence. And so then I drank a bunch of beer.”
They then go on to the next race, and Dale Jr. says that after a few days he’s a little more comfortable:
“Now I’m getting my own beers after a few days. I’m comfortable. I know where the cooler is…real comfortable. Now I got a couple nudie magazines, the Bible’s long gone…”
But they almost got busted by the elder Earnhardt during their next stop:
“Your dad stuck his head in the camper at Topeka. He says, ‘Junior up there?’
I said, ‘He’s fine.’ And he’s like, you know he’s got a magazine and beer cans beside the couch, like, ‘I’m good dad!'”
Junior said his dad didn’t notice anything at that point, but apparently he somehow got wind of their exploits later on in the week.
But that Saturday night, things really got wild: They decided to go to the strip club.
“We’re in a van, we pull up…and a couple of people are like, ‘They ain’t gonna let him in.’
Schrader’s like, ‘We’re gonna form a circle, Junior you get in the middle, just eyes forward, don’t say a word, we’re just gonna go in, they’re never even gonna see you.’
It didn’t work. So we get to the door and we try to go on in, and the guy goes, ‘Hey you can’t come in.'”
Well Junior decides not to push the issue, and goes back to the parking lot to hang out in the van, and another member of the group who Junior didn’t know very well decided to go back with him.
“He’s like, ‘Let’s sit in the bed of this pickup truck next to the van.’ Me and him get the beer cooler, we sit in the bed of the pickup truck and drinking beer and just watching people come in and out of the parking lot.”
Now would also be a good time to mention that they had no idea whose truck it was that they were hanging out in. But Junior and this guy are just hanging out in the back of a random truck, shooting the sh*t, and watching all of the activity going on around them in the parking lot of the strip club – including a guy who was selling guns out of his car:
“I watched a gun deal go down. I’m watching a guy selling guns out of the trunk of his car…Me and this guy are sitting in the bed of this pickup truck and two guys are standing at the back of this Mercury with the trunk open, just talking and looking in there, and talking and looking in there.
I imagine it was guns, I dunno. I’m gonna assume it was guns. Who knows what could have been in there.”
Well at some point during the evening, Schrader had another surprise for Junior while he was stuck out in the parking lot.
“Midnight, 1:00 in the morning, pitch black. They come out. Well who comes out with them? All the girls that are in the club…
In my mind, today, as I’m remembering it, in about 2 minutes they’re like, ‘Hey, you couldn’t get in there so we brought the party out here.
There’s strippers standing on the hoods of the car around, there’s guys carrying AKs around and firing them in the air…
It wasn’t really like that but that’s how I imagine it in my mind.
The strip club basically just emptied out into the parking lot for I don’t know how long.”
“We didn’t want you not to be included.”
Well the next morning finally rolls around, and Junior says he gets the first hangover of the entire trip. (Schrader points out that Junior would have had to stop drinking to get a hangover before then). And his dad had flown in to run the race that day, so Schrader had some advice for Junior:
“I gave you strict instructions, don’t talk to him and don’t breathe on him.”
But despite his best efforts, Junior wasn’t able to avoid his dad. While he was sitting in Schrader’s pit stall, Earnhardt walks up:
“I seen daddy’s boots coming across the floor. I got my head down, and under the bill of my cap I can see daddy walking up.
And he looked down at me and he goes, ‘Hey.’ And I looked up at him and he just turned around and walked off. I didn’t even have to say anything.”
And on their way home after the race, Junior says he got the silent treatment from his dad:
“I remember we got on the plane and went home. I don’t remember having a conversation with him about it, I think it was, I knew I was caught, I knew he was mad, and he didn’t want to talk to me and I didn’t damn sure wanna open my mouth and start anything.
It was silent. And he never said a word to me.”
I mean, how mad could he really be? He knew what was going to happen on the trip.
But the best part of the whole story may be something that Dale didn’t find out until years later. He recalls walking into the driver’s meeting during a race and sitting down next to Carl Edwards, who introduces him to his father:
“I sit down next to Carl, Carl waves me over, and he’s like, ‘Come here.’ He’s like, ‘You know my dad.’ I’m like, ‘No, I don’t think so man, how you doing?’ He goes, ‘Nah you know him, he says y’all and him hung out.’
I was like, ‘What?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, in the back of a pickup truck in the damn parking lot of a strip club in Topeka, Kansas.’
I was like, ‘That was YOU? Carl Edwards’ dad. Back in 1991. What a small world.”
Incredible. Sounds like they had a hell of a week – and got one hell of a story out of it.