This is Part I of a four-part series on the life, death and safety legacy of Dale Earnhardt, 20 years after his fatal crash at the 2001 Daytona 500.
THE INTIMIDATOR STANDS watch over his hometown of Kannapolis, North Carolina, day and night, his arms permanently interlocked across his chest, his folded Gargoyles shades sticking out of his shirt pocket, as visible as the Wrangler “W” on the back of his jeans and the seams in his favorite cowboy boots.
It is a frosty February afternoon, and the statue of Dale Earnhardt is staring into the face of a hard winter wind like it was a rival on the racetrack. The smirk that peeks out from beneath his signature mustache says, “C’mon, man, is that all you’ve got?”
The 9-foot-tall bronze statue is, appropriately, larger than life. To those who were around him in person, those devotees who work to keep alive the Gospel of The Intimidator, including the man who carries Dale Earnhardt’s name, that’s the way his legacy feels.
“It’s huge!” Dale Earnhardt Jr. says with a hearty laugh. “It’s amazing, and I’ve loved the opportunity to take [my wife] Amy there, to take my daughter there. When you see other people visit it and post their experience online, it’s a great thing.
“But those are just momentary sorts of things. They’re not forever. They’re not the memory. It doesn’t replace the memories, you know?”
The 2021 Daytona 500 is Sunday, and Feb. 18 marks the 20th anniversary of the day NASCAR’s biggest star was killed in the final turn of the final lap of the race he loved more than any other. This Great American Race will be no different from all the others run since 2001, as the pall cast by the death of Earnhardt at age 49 has never gone away. But the milestone date has made this year feel especially heavy.
Twenty years without Dale Earnhardt on the racetrack with his hands on the wheel of his famed No. 3 Chevy. That’s a lot of time to process the legacy of the legend. Twenty years means the number of people who have watched NASCAR without Earnhardt might very well equal or be greater than the number of those who watched races with him in the field. With each day and race, the images of Earnhardt become more aged. The videos of his 76 wins are in standard definition. The photos of his seven NASCAR Cup Series championships are on film. There have been 719 Cup Series races without him, an entire generation passed, and enough time for dozens of racers to have debuted and retired.
His untimely death still reverberates within the sport and beyond. In a four-part series in conjunction with E60, we examine the racing risks Earnhardt knew all too well and the sacrifice of a superhero life that has since saved so many others: his rivals, his son and Ryan Newman in the Daytona 500 one year ago.
But first, one must understand Earnhardt’s colossal effect on stock car racing itself. His handshake was like a pneumatic vise grip. He played mind games like Muhammad Ali, owned corporate boardrooms like Peyton Manning and walked into the racetrack every Sunday with the swagger of Tiger Woods. Drivers who raced against him at Talladega and Daytona even claimed he could see air.
It’s all true. Every bit of it. Dale Earnhardt wasn’t a stock car racer. He was the stock car racer.
WHEN EARNHARDT WAS alive, he was often compared to a fellow North Carolinian also at the height of his stardom: Michael Jordan.
As we experienced last year with the airing of “The Last Dance,” propping up an athlete from back in the day as still…