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Death of a Champion: Dale Earnhardt

February 19, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPORTSCASTER: Right behind them.

TERENCE SMITH: The deadly crash came yesterday afternoon at the premiere event for America’s fastest-growing sport. Dale Earnhardt, stock car racing’s most famous driver, was fighting for position in his signature black number three Goodwrench Chevrolet. In the final turn of the final lap, he lost control and swerved, crashing into the high-banked wall at a speed approaching 170 miles per hour.

SPORTSCASTER: And you see the ambulance transporting him directly to Halifax Medical Center.

TERENCE SMITH: Earnhardt was pronounced dead from head injuries at a nearby hospital. The 49-year-old driver was nicknamed “The Intimidator” for his aggressive driving demeanor and fierce sense of competition. His father, Ralph Earnhardt, was also a sports car champion, and pioneer of Nascar in the 1950s. Dale Earnhardt ran his first race in 1975, and earned his first victory at the Bristol Motor Speedway in 1979. During his career, he finished first 76 times and won seven Winston Cup championships. Although the winningest driver in the history of the Daytona speedway, he won the Daytona 500 only once, in his 20th try, in 1998. (Cheers)

DALE EARNHARDT: This is the greatest time I’ve ever had in the victory lane right here. This is it.

TERENCE SMITH: Earnhardt’s 24 year- old-son, Dale, Jr., was ahead of him in yesterday’s race. He finished second to winner Michael Waltrip. Both drivers steered cars owned by Dale, Sr. More than 200,000 fans watched yesterday’s race at the Daytona international speedway, and more than one million saw it on television. Stock cars weigh about 3,500 pounds, and are modified versions of ordinary production cars. The safety of stock car racing has been questioned recently. Three other drivers– Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, and Tony Roper– have been killed in speedway accidents in the last ten months. At a press conference today, the winning driver, Michael Waltrip, said the accident was just that– an accident.

MICHAEL WALTRIP: You know, he was just doing his job, and close racing sometimes makes contact happen. When contact happens, you hit the wall, and Shrader hit it and Shrader walked away, and Dale didn’t. But I don’t think anyone could have done anything differently in that situation to help Dale.

TERENCE SMITH: Outside the entrance to Daytona USA, fans of all ages placed flowers at a makeshift memorial…

FAN: I’m really sad because he was my best driver.

FAN: It was such a shock last night. I couldn’t sleep at all. I woke up this morning thinking that we I thought we’d wake up and hear something different.

TERENCE SMITH: …And flags flew at half-staff outside the speedway.

TERENCE SMITH: For more on Dale Earnhardt, we’re joined by Csaba Csere, editor in chief of Car and Driver Magazine. Welcome. Let me ask you: Tell us a little about Dale Earnhardt, the man, what he was like and what his loss represents to the sport.

CSABA CSERE: Well, Earnhardt was the absolute personification of Nascar. He was a southern boy from a blue-collar background. He was an incredibly fierce competitor on the track but a fun-loving guy off the track. He was an incredibly successful as a race driver. He was a money driver. With his 76 victories, he won seven Winston Cup championships. That’s as many Winston Cup championships as Richard Petty won with 200 victories, so he could smell that checkered flag when it came up. He knew what he had to do to get the victory. That’s what people loved about him.

TERENCE SMITH: And the nickname, “The Intimidator?”

CSABA CSERE: That nickname came from the fierce determination to win. You can win a race just by driving faster than the other guy or having the faster car, or you can kind of bull your way forward. The issue with Earnhardt was he wanted to see that checkered flag first. And when you saw Earnhardt in your mirrors, you knew that, (a), he just might pass you. But b, he might bump you or trade paint with you as they say in Nascar or push you aside. He wouldn’t going to be kept behind you. That’s why he was known as “The Intimidator.”

TERENCE SMITH: And intimidated you were I guess. His was the fourth fatality in the last ten months in this sport, all head injuries. What does that say to you in terms of safety? Is there a safety issue here?

CSABA CSERE: Four of types of injuries in 12 months has to get Nascar’s attention. I’m sure they’re going to be looking at some possible safety devices that could possibly help out in this circumstance. But keep in mind some of this is just statistics. Nascar will have a number of fatalities like this — and then they’ll go years and years without any kind of fatality, and this may simply be a bad stretch in Nascar. But if I were running the organization, I would be looking at some safety devices now.

TERENCE SMITH: There was debate during the news conference this afternoon, in fact, about the so-called HANS devices, these Head And Neck Support devices. They really lock the driver in. Even though the doctor was not sure it would have saved Dale Earnhardt, is that something whose time has come?

CSABA CSERE: Well, it depends. It’s very easy to look at this crash and say that that HANS device would have been helpful. In certain other crashes it may not help you. Keep in mind these cars really bear very little resemblance to the standard production car. For example, they don’t have functioning doors. You crawl in – you kind of slither in through the driver’s window. When you’ve got this thing that is locking your neck in place that’s going to reduce your flexibility and if you crash and the car catches fire, it may make it more difficult for you to get out of the car and get away from the flames. So in certain circumstances, that may not be the best thing for you.

TERENCE SMITH: Other drivers were quoted today as saying that Nascar has changed some rules lately in order to make the… making the cars more stable, permitting even closer racing, permitting three cars abreast in some situations. Has this — inadvertently I’m sure — made it more dangerous?

CSABA CSERE: It’s hard to say. Nascar has a history of dithering with the rules. They do it for three reasons. One is they do it to control speeds. In fact, these cars could go a lot faster than they were going, but the rules artificially slow them down for reasons of safety. In fact, this was the slowest Daytona 500 in 20 years.

TERENCE SMITH: The notion is if they went faster it would simply be too dangerous?

CSABA CSERE: Well, of course. The faster they go, the harder the impact if a driver loses control. Also keep in mind these cars are going at speeds above the take-off speed of a 747. You start going pretty fast and a car gets sideways and it just starts flying through the air. That’s very dangerous. But the other aspect also is that they want there to be a lot of passing during the race because that’s one of the key aspects of Nascar. These races don’t turn into processions where the guy who starts the race in front leads the entire race like happens in Formula 1 all the time. In Nascar there’s a lot of lead changes, and the rules are designed to keep the cars very close so there’s opportunities for lead change. Finally, the rules are also moved around to keep the various car brands competitive. And all three of those probably factored into these rule changes but it’s hard to see where they really had an adverse impact on safety.

TERENCE SMITH: Although close racing sounds ipso facto like dangerous racing.

CSABA CSERE: Well, it is but that’s also where the skill comes in. Keep in mind these drivers are running around this bank circuit. They are going 185 miles per hour right at the knife edge of control. They’re doing this in some cases inches apart from another car and they’re also jockeying for position at the same time. That’s where the skill comes in. That’s what a guy like Earnhardt did so well. But when you do that, sometimes the cars are going to contact each other. And then you’re going to have some pile-ups. In this very race about 25 laps from the end there was an enormous pile-up. One car got side ways in front of the big pack — and ultimately 18 cars crashed on this. And there wasn’t a serious injury in the bunch. So ordinarily these sorts of crashes occur but the drivers walk away from them.

TERENCE SMITH: What do you think will be the impact of his loss, Dale Earnhardt’s loss, on the sport? For example when Michael Jordan retired from basketball, you know, the NBA came on some hard times, and they felt a really negative impact. Is that likely here?

CSABA CSERE: It’s going to be interesting to see. Certainly he is the biggest name in Nascar, and his death is not going to help Nascar at all. In particular, Nascar’s right on the cusp now of becoming a major national sport competing on an equal footing with the various ball-and-stick sports. TV ratings, however, were down a little bit last year even before this. And this is kind of a make-or- break year for Nascar. On the other hand, car racing has seen tragedies like this in all forms of it. A few years ago Ayrton Senna, who was the best Formula 1 driver of his generation died in a crash. It didn’t get F-1 racing. Race fans, much as they may hate to admit, are somewhat used to this happening in their sport. It’s a part of motor racing.

TERENCE SMITH: Right but this was, as you say, a moment where a sport was on the threshold of moving into the mainstream. I wonder what you think — if this will derail that.

CSABA CSERE: Well, it’s very hard to say if it will or not. As I say it certainly doesn’t help but there’s an awful lot of other popular drivers in Nascar. The series is very, very strong now. They have a terrific schedule. They have factory participation from Dodge, from Ford, from Chevrolet. So, Nascar has everything going for it. I think it would be very premature to write off Nascar because of this tragedy.

TERENCE SMITH: I guess the interest is just tremendous. We said earlier the fastest growing sport in this country.

CSABA CSERE: Well, it is. It’s because people’s love affair with cars has been rekindled in the ’90s. Part of it is the good economy. Fuel crises are beyond us. This is an interesting sport where the drivers and the stars are very accessible. That’s one of the parts of Nascar and one of the reasons why a guy like Earnhardt was so popular that when these guys become the super stars of the sport, they don’t isolate themselves from the fans. They make themselves accessible. They shake hands. They talk to them. They sign autographs. And the people love that.

TERENCE SMITH: So is there another Dale Earnhardt in the wings?

CSABA CSERE: Well, there’s a number of drivers who could perhaps step forward, but it takes a certain amount of time. Earnhardt has been at the top of his game for 20 years and you don’t build his kind of reputation overnight. I think we’re going to have to wait certainly a couple of seasons to see if there’s anyone who can come close to filling his shoes.

TERENCE SMITH: Csaba Csere, thank you very, very much.