The Trophy Case: Dale Earnhardt Sr. & The Daytona 500
Asst. Sports Editor
This year Valentine's Day will host the “Great American Race” - the Daytona 500. The Daytona 500 is Nascar’s Super Bowl in terms of production, importance and impact on culture. Tens of thousands of fans attend the race in Daytona Beach, Florida, not to mention the tailgaters who stay overnight in the confines of the track in their trailers/RVs. Millions upon millions of viewers partake in viewing the 200 mile spectacle because of how ingrained it is into American culture. Even though a happy and well celebrated event, one of the race’s most-well known moments is one of the saddest in sports history.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. is considered the best and most influential NASCAR driver of all time. If someone does not have Earnhardt at their top spot, it’s usually Richard Petty they have. Born in 1951 and raised in North Carolina, Earnhardt’s father Ralph was one of the best short-track drivers in the state. In fact, Ralph Earnhardt won one NASCAR title, the Sportsman Championship, in the year 1956. Being surrounded by race cars and drivers alike as a child, Dale wanted to be a stock car driver just like his daddy. The two competed against each other throughout different racing divisions in 1972. Ralph was very concerned with his son’s future, not wanting him to pursue the career of a race car driver. Dale eventually dropped out of school to commit full time to racing. A year later, in 1973, Ralph Earnhardt passed away of a heart attack. Dale never came to terms with his father’s death.
Earnhard divorced his first wife in 1970 and Earnhardt married Brenda Gee, the daughter of famous NASCAR car builder Robert Gee, in 1972. The couple had two children and divorced not too long after the birth of their second child. Dale married again in 1982 and gave birth to a daughter, Taylor, who is a world renown rodeo performer. He was a good father but very tough on his children wanting them to be successful and not a school drop out like himself.
Dale Earnhardt however made the right decision dropping out of school and pursuing race car driving. Earnhardt is the most successful NASCAR driver of all time. The amount of accolades the man has is too many to even list within this article. He was deemed the best sports nickname of all-time “The Intimidator” for his aggressive driving on the race track. To let his opponents know he was on their trails, Earnhardt would go as far as to bump his opponents from behind. Some of the accolades of the “Intimidator” include seven Winston Cup champions, four time International Race of Champions winner, 1979 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year, 1995 Brickyard 400 winner and 1998 Daytona 500 winner to name a few.
Earnhardt’s son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., wanted to grow up to be a NASCAR driver like his father. Dale Jr. however grew up as a delinquent due to his household’s financial struggles and the divorce of his parents. Junior lived with his mother and sister while his father was remarried and always on the road. His mother Brenda struggled to make ends meet as a single mom of two. At the age of six, the house he had lived in with his mother and sister burnt down in a fire. Earnhardt and his sister were sent to live with his father and stepmother since the mother could not afford to care for them following the fire. Earnhardt sent Dale Jr. to military school with his sister at age 12 due to his chaotic behavior. This helped straighten Dale Jr. out. Junior would start training and working with his dad at age 17 and the rest as they say for Dale Earnhardt Jr. is history.
The 2001 Daytona 500 was very special for the Earnhardt father-son team. Dale Sr. was starting third in positioning while his son was only five behind in the eighth spot. Having two competitive men from the same family and racing team was sure to make an already amazing race that much better. For a majority of the race, both men consistently remained within top 10 positions. February 18, 2001 is known for what occurred during its final lap. Dale Earnhardt Sr. was in third right behind his son, who was in second and close to passing the leader Michael Waltrip. Senior was blocking for his son trying to relieve pressure so he could focus on winning the race. Creeping up on his right, driver Ken Schrader attempted to pass him. Earnhardt ended up colliding into Schrader after fellow driver Sterling Martin made contact with Dale. His car went “head-first” into the outside wall and slid off the track into the grass. Waltrip won the race, but everyone was still focused on the horrific crash that just occured. At 5:16 p.m. Dale Earnhardt Sr. was officially declared dead as a result of a “...fatal basilar skull fracture..” by the Halifax Medical Center. In layman's terms, it means the base of his skull was fractured.
Earnhardt’s death was shocking, devastating and traumatic to all. His death however exposed flaws within the safety of the stock cars and its accessories. After rumors of the seatbelts within the car being a main reason why the injury was sustained, Bill Simpson, former race car driver and founder of Simpson’s Safety Performance Products, left NASCAR since his company manufactured and produced the seatbelts within the vehicle. Vehicle modifications made to stock cars at the time and also set the path for future safety features implemented today. Floods of memorials and celebrations of his life were held across the nation. Loved by many, Dale Earnhardt Sr. passing away was like losing a family member to many people. Till this day, fans still hold up three fingers on final laps of races in honor of the legend himself. Earnhardt was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2006 and then the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. lived, ate, breathed and died racing. It is what he was passionate about in life and loved doing. Hiding his insecurities about dropping out of school at a young age, racing was something Earnhardt felt smart about. It could be argued without the Intimidator, NASCAR would not be the global brand it is today. The story of him and his death however paints a much bigger picture. It is one about a father and son who loved and respected each other very much. They helped each other grow as fathers, men and as racers. Dale Earnhardt Sr. will always be remembered in the “Greatest of All Time” debate amongst racing fans. He should be remembered for being a father who did everything and anything in his power to make sure his children succeeded in life, even if that meant risking his own.