February 14, 2011
This week marks the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. As part of our tribute, we're running your recollections on that fateful day, a moment that's burned into the memory of every NASCAR fan of a certain age. Following, some selected responses.
I can remember it with ease. We were sitting in our living room, me having convinced the basketball loving roommates I had at the time that this was America's race, shut up and watch. I was yelling for Junior, then I saw him hit the wall. "No big deal," I told the guys. This was the Intimidater, a larger-than-life man to me, the whole reason I started watching NASCAR. Then when he didn't immediately get out and celebrate with Dale Jr, I knew something was up. I called in the next day at work, then I sat in stunned, Budweiser silence for the rest of the week. —Jamie Smith
I was 17 at the time and back then I wasn't such a big racing fan as I am now, but I had a love affair with cars and knew the 500 was a big deal. On that day I was at my father's girlfriend's house watching the race and switching back and forth between the races and other programs. It was about 20 laps to go when my dad (who didn't care about auto racing), told me we had to go. I begged him for me to finish the race and he said no we are leaving. I went on with my day and I didn't know the results of the race until late at night watching the nightly sports show. When they said Dale had passed away I froze. I vividly remember sitting on my bed in the dark in front of my TV saying "no," over and over again. —Bismarck Vasquez
When I think back on the day the Man in Black passed, the one thing that sticks in my mind is it just wasn't that bad of a crash. I watched it over and over again and could not believe that little wreck could kill the man we had all seen flip a race car and get back in it and drive it. It was nothing compared to Ernie [Irvan]'s or Davey [Allison]'s wrecks and they didn't die. Then I watched in horror as they played the blame game, first threatening Sterling Marlin, then Simpson over the safety belt. NASCAR never really stepped up and said we could have stopped this, the technology was not new, many series used the HANS devices. By far the worst were those [censored] in my state who wanted to show his autopsy photos ... NASCAR lost an icon that day, one who was perhaps the last of his kind. Nobody has shown his nerve his cunning or his tell it like it is attitude since. Smoke has the tell it like it is but not the sheer, "if you don't like it, kiss my ass" attitude of Dale ... When I look back on it now, it is still hard to believe he didn't get out of his car and go and have words with Sterling and celebrate his biggest triumph as an owner. —Dale Glebe
Sitting on my couch, natch; watching. It was absolutely heartbreaking to listen to DW, torn between, "my brother won the race" and "I hope Dale's okay". About 30 seconds after the announcement was made that Dale had passed, our phone rang, long distance from a friend in Colorado.
"Did you guys see?"
"Yeah, we saw."
That was literally all that had needed to be said, even though we hadn't heard from him in some weeks. —Carol Fitzgerald
I was thinking Michael Waltrip could win this race with the aid of Dale Jr. and Dale Sr. I remember thinking, "I know Dale Sr. is not blocking the whole field so Mikey could win the race," but that's exactly what he was doing. And then came Turn 4. An unintentional tap from Ken Schrader sent Dale into the wall. When Ken ran to Dale's car and hurried EMS up, I knew something bad was wrong. Tears rolled down my face when I realized he was critically hurt. And then came the news ... I went to Rockingham the following week to see Dale Jr. race. I was shocked he even started his car. When he came by on the warmup lap, it was almost like he looked at the stands and said "thanks" to all race fans. —Tommy Smith
The day Dale Earnhardt passed away was the day I watched my first NASCAR race. I was 11 years old and I watched the race with my family. That race was so entertaining that it got me hooked from then on. I wasn't really sure who was on what team and how all the rules worked, but I could understand that Dale was doing all he could to help his son and one of his best friends win that race. Its a strange irony that in his final race he was competing with a style he rarely used for his whole career.
Because I was a rookie viewer I couldn't understand how Dale could die in his crash but Smoke walked away from his, because the Big One looked so much worse. I'd like to think that Dale was happier and prouder on that last lap than he ever was in his whole career when he saw the 15 and 8 running away from the field. When Mike Helton gave that press conference it was undeniably one of the saddest sports memories (along with the Hendrick plane crash) I will ever have. —Steve Cook
I remember that day like it was yesterday. Papers had a pic of him sitting on the door post of the #3. Headline read "Wheel Appeal." Media said he "might" be a contender at the end but started in the 3rd row. I couldn't believe it when Helton said "we've lost Dale Earnhardt." Next day's headlines read "Intimidator and Entertainer." He was called the Man in Black even though his fire suit was white. Now he has a white halo to match. The accounts of his soft, gold heart were numerous; if only all the race fans knew what a giving man and father he really was. The drivers knew he was a prankster, but it was never time to joke around on track, he was all business there. He is truly missed but still immensely remembered today. —Tom Dignan Sr.
On that fateful day, I was glued to the television for that race. I was never a huge Sr. fan, like a lot of others though I was a fan of Junior and Michael Waltrip. I cannot imagine how distraught those two must have felt along with Sterling Marlin when they learned the fate of "The Intimidator"! He truly was and is a legend in racing and probably did more for NASCAR than any other driver to bring them to the current levels of competition we now enjoy. Unfortunately, it took his death to get HANS devices and head restraints, but not sure he would have been happy using them anyway, they would have cramped his style! —Marty Wilber
On that day I was watching the race on and off at my in-laws. I saw the end when Dale hit the wall and Michael won. I thought it didn't look like that bad a wreck, I had certainly seen worse, or so I thought. We left and went to our little family restaurant in town. We were sitting there half-watching the television when Mike Helton came on and made that horrific announcement. I remember we moved closer to the television and were in complete and utter shock. The restaurant became eerily quiet. It felt like a dream. I remember going home and watching the coverage on television all night, and will never forget the look on Junior's face. He just looked so alone and in complete shock. I truly felt like I lost part of my family that day and to this day, if I watch the Dale The Documentary, narrated by Senior, I find myself crying like a baby. It still hurts deep inside and I think it always will. —Cathy Plunkard
I was a dairy farmer once upon a time, and Feb. 18th, 2001 looked to be another Sunday watching race recaps. My shift started about halfway through the race, so I turned off the TV, went out and started feeding "the girls." As soon as the last cow went through the milking parlor, I ran back to the house to check the race results. I turned on the TV, and the sound came on before the picture. I heard Mike Helton say "we lost Dale Earnhardt." I sat (slumped) down and watched for a few minutes, trying to comprehend what I was hearing. I watched the replay of the wreck through glassy, wet eyes. I got my barn clothes back on, and went to the milking parlor, where my then-wife was cleaning up. I leaned on her and cried a little. "Dale's dead," I said. She was floored, but for a different reason.
We were pretty hardcore fans, and she assumed that I meant the cow we had named Dale (yes, we named a cow after Senior....) was dead. Once I explained though, she was a little more relieved than I was. Our bovine Dale was the beginning of a bloodline that eventually included Junior, Intimidator, Eight, and Kerry. My ex-wife let me know that Junior calved a couple of weeks ago, and the latest addition is Kelly. There are no plans, however, for a Teresa! —TomD
Thanks to all who wrote in with your reflections. Follow Jay Busbee on Twitter at @jaybusbee and email him by clicking here, and follow The Marbles on Facebook for constant updates from Daytona's Speedweeks.
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