Friday, February 18, 2011

I Was At the 2001 Daytona 500

I was at the infamous Daytona 500 ten years ago today, and it's a decision me and my family made that left a personal mark for me on this tragedy.

At the time, I was homeschooled by my mother in central Florida and my father had a lot of flexibility with his work schedule as a pharmacist. As such, we planned several "mini vacations" throughout the course of a normal school year. One of those decisions was to go up to Daytona Beach for the opening weekend of the NASCAR series. It included us getting tickets to see the NAPA Auto Parts 300 in the Busch Series (won by Randy LaJoie) and the aforementioned Daytona 500. We had seats maybe 20-30 rows up, and just to the right of the start/finish line looking out towards the race track.

As far as the Busch Series opener goes, it was marred by ominous gray clouds and a prolonged rain storm that eventually put the race out for about an hour and a half. Actually, we left about halfway through the red flag because my parents thought the delay would never end. It did, and we saw just 15 laps of the race. By the time we went to eat out and returned to our hotel room, the race was nearing the end of it's conclusion. Turns out, we missed a crash on the penultimate lap which all but secured the victory for LaJoie. I was disappointed that we saw so little of this race, and my parents decided that we'd see tomorrow's Daytona 500 in its entirety.

The following day had much better weather and, from the looks of it, was bound to be a great day.

At the time, I was a fan of hot-shot Tony Stewart (still am) and 7-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, who - along with Alan Kulwicki - made up my favorite number: 37.

That Daytona 500 was exciting for a number of reasons. It was the first time Dodge returned to the circuit since 1985, Kurt Busch (among others) were rookies making their Winston Cup debut, and a number of veteran drivers were still looking for their first win, including Ricky Craven, Elliott Sadler, Johnny Benson, Steve Park, and Michael Waltrip (among others).

As the race wound down, the drama began to escalate. With under 30 laps to go, "The Big One" happened, and half the field was collected in the melee. Tony Stewart's car went airborne during the crash, and it looked horrendous what was bound to happen on the final lap.

Michael Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Dale Earnhardt Sr. - all teammates with Dale Earnhardt Inc. - were running one, two, and three (respectively) for the last several laps heading into the white flag. At turn four on the final lap, Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s car lost control, went up the track, and slammed into the wall, taking along Ken Schrader in this crash. As it happened, Waltrip took the checkered flag and won his first race at NASCAR's premier level in 463 career starts. The finish had all the makings of an instant classic. But the defining moment came not at the track. It came at a press conference several hours later.

At approximately 7:15 p.m. Eastern time, NASCAR president Mike Helton announced the news no one wanted to hear:

Undoubtedly this is one of the toughest announcements I've ever personally had to make. After the accident in Turn 4 at the end of the Daytona 500, we've lost Dale Earnhardt.

Earnhardt died within seconds of impact because he didn't wear a neck-restraining device to cushion the blow. His death was the result of a basilar skull fracture, and it's a similar experience of being hanged.

It's a tragedy that, unfornuately, was not an isolated incident. The previous year, NASCAR lost three up-and-coming drivers to fatal accidents while racing on the track: Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr., and Tony Roper. Their deaths were no doubt devastating, but Earnhardt's dwarfed all of them due to his legacy and circumstances.

NASCAR losing Dale Earnhardt would be like MLB losing Albert Pujols, or the NFL losing Aaron Rodgers, or the NBA losing Kobe Bryant, or the NHL losing Sidney Crosby today. It was that huge of a loss.

Additionally, it all but forced NASCAR to start mandating every driver wear head and neck restraints. Additionally, NASCAR began desiging the "Car of Tomorrow" to provide additional driver safety and SAFER barrier walls to help cushion the impact of cars crashing into them. The moves have been a godsend for the sport.

Earnhardt's death has (so far) been the last on-track fatality in NASCAR.

As for me, I was at a loss for words. I was distraught that one of my favorite drivers would die doing their job, and especially when I was there to witness it. All the good things my family and I had planned that weekend were cast a mournful shade of black. The same color that dominated Earnhardt's paint scheme and earned him the nickname, "Intimdator".

That 2001 Daytona 500 was the first NASCAR Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) race I ever saw, and it's a race I'll never forget.

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