This is Part III 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 name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe.” – Proverbs 18
THE BIBLE VERSE was taped to the instrument panel of Dale Earnhardt‘s Chevy Monte Carlo when it veered into the Turn 4 wall at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500. It had been there when his crew secured his window net on pit road and he rolled away to take the green flag. And it was still there three hours later, when, in the infield grass at the bottom of that turn, Ken Schrader took that same window net down to talk with his old friend about their wrecked race cars, only to find the seven-time champion slumped over in his seat and the cockpit covered in blood.
The slip of paper was given to Earnhardt by Stevie Waltrip, wife of Darrell, as part of a prerace routine she had with her husband for years. Per Earnhardt’s request, she started doing it for him as well. Her husband tried to talk her into finding a different verse, something less ominous. No, she said — something was telling her that one was the right one.
“I’ve got it all right now, Darrell, I’ve got it all!” Earnhardt said to Waltrip two days earlier, in an interview with the rival-turned-retiree-turned-TV analyst. He talked about his renewed life as a family man, finally getting marriage and fatherhood right on the third try. He talked about his fast race car and the even faster race cars of the team he now owned. He got so excited that he leapt out of his seat. “I’m a lucky man. I’ve got it all!”
When we look back on tragic days in our lives, we always find what feel like missed signs of what was to come. Sometimes, it’s through a formal investigation of a historic event, like a terrorist attack or space shuttle explosion. Calls of warning that were shrugged off by authorities or documents that revealed a corporation knew it was flirting with disaster but went on doing it anyway.
More often, the signs are much smaller, much more personal. A note, a comment, a last conversation with a lost loved one that wasn’t really an indicator of cosmic tumblers about to fall into place, but man, in retrospect, they sure feel like it.
When we look back on Feb. 18, 2001, the day Earnhardt died at the end of that race, we find so much of both — personal recollections about conversations that feel so foreboding now, and moments when so many racers chose to stick with the norm, even amid the constant sounds of safety experts’ warnings, ambulance sirens and funeral parlor organs.
Earnhardt’s death launched a NASCAR safety evolution that continues 20 years later. But the people who lived that day in the arena with the man in his final hours still find themselves wrestling with the reality that Dale Earnhardt is gone.
THE 2001 DAYTONA 500 was without question the most hyped and anticipated event in NASCAR’s then-53-year history. It was the first race of a new six-year billion-dollar broadcast deal and Fox Sports had wallpapered the nation in promotion, from ads during NFL playoff games to getting Terry Bradshaw named grand marshal of the event, complete with a Daytona 500 Eve ridealong with Earnhardt, who jerked the wheel like he was headed into the wall just to scare the four-time Super Bowl champ. A revamped superspeedway rules package, the same one Earnhardt used to earn his already legendary 18th-to-first dash at Talladega, promised to provide an entertaining event. And Earnhardt’s 2000 resurgence as a title contender had the…