DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The legend of Dale Earnhardt belongs to him now, not NASCAR. For while the myth of The Intimidator is still growing 10 years after his death on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, these days it's doing little for NASCAR.
It might be if Dale Earnhardt Jr. were able to carry the torch the way everyone in Junior Nation wants him to; could be if Jeff Gordon were an actual antagonist instead of the artificial one he was made out to be during his battling days with Earnhardt Sr.; and probably would be had Jimmie Johnson ever raced against Senior, thus providing Earnhardt fans a tangible reason to respect Johnson as he assaults the record books.
But it's not that way.
Instead, NASCAR continues a desperate search for someone to fill that role of hero/villain – a role Earnhardt played so brilliantly that he made those around him seem more fun than they actually were.
"I wouldn't have been as popular," Jeff Gordon said of his rivalry with Earnhardt, "and this is something we talk about today with the sport with a guy like Jimmie winning five [championships] in a row. There just isn't that rivalry.
"We need it."
Through Earnhardt's genius, both behind the wheel and as a master showman, he showed the NASCAR world what's possible – the ideal, if you will. The results were the roaring '90s for NASCAR, with Earnhardt battling Gordon for championships, bumping fenders with Terry Labonte at Bristol and finally winning that Daytona 500 in 1998. All those events elevated stock-car racing from regional curiosity to national phenomenon.
Those were the days, and in the 10 years since Earnhardt's death, the sport has been on a mission to recreate them. Only it hasn't been able to. And while NASCAR has been looking back, it hasn't been able to move forward.
The result, at least in part, is a sport in decline. TV ratings are down and fans are in a state of constant furor – each of which has NASCAR's front office searching for a magical fix that's going to make it all better.
With this in mind, Earnhardt's lasting impact on NASCAR won't be in the form of a statue sitting outside Daytona International Speedway or on a bumper sticker sporting his number 3, or even in those seven championships he won. Rather, Earnhardt's legacy will be in SAFER barriers, the HANS device and the lives still being lived because he lost his.
Consider this: Between 1974 and 1987, NASCAR made exactly one major safety improvement – slapping speed-choking restrictor plates onto carburetors at Daytona and Talladega. From 1988 to 2000, roof flaps were added to keep cars from flying in the air; roll cages were reinforced; and heavy fencing was mandated around every track to keep fans safer.
Tragic deaths in 2000 and 2001 escalated NASCAR's road to improving safety innovation.
Photos: Getty Images
Driver restraint, however, remained status quo.
In 2000, three NASCAR drivers died – Kenny Irwin, Adam Petty and Tony Roper – in separate incidents either during practice or a race. In response to Petty's death, caused by a stuck throttle, NASCAR mandated engine cut-off switches mounted on every steering wheel. Still, no major initiatives were taken to address driver restraint.
Then came the death of Dale Earnhardt in a 2001 crash that to this day still looks relatively minor.
Earnhardt's autopsy revealed that the cause of death was a blow to the head, likely precipitated by a sequence of "complex body motions." Because his seatbelts weren't tight – emergency personnel found his belt cut, though there has been no determination how that happened – his body shifted when his car made contact with Ken Schrader's. Earnhardt's helmet, the faceless one he was famous for wearing, was displaced. At some point, an exposed area of Earnhardt's head suffered a fatal impact – either with the steering wheel or with the seat on rebound.
NASCAR's response to the fatal accident was swift and sweeping. By the end of the 2001 season, it had raised its safety-belt standards and introduced annual driver-safety seminars. In 2002, NASCAR mandated head and neck restraints, and called for stronger seats with head protection. That same year, SAFER barriers – soft walls – were installed around the walls of certain tracks, with Indianapolis Motor Speedway being the first.
"I just recently got a [NASCAR rulebook] from 2001, and let me tell you [safety] was a fairly small section – and that book is only half the size it is today," said Tom Gideon, NASCAR's director of safety initiatives. "In all areas there are more rules, but the safety area grew the fastest."
Gideon was a safety executive for General Motors at the time of Earnhardt's death.
"In the race Dale died, probably a half-dozen guys had head restraints on, so the process had begun," Gideon continued. "But Dale was a change. Here was a driver who was a tough guy, who had been through a lot of different kinds of accidents. [His death] did have an effect on speeding up the [safety] process."
It wasn't all because of Earnhardt. But it was his death that kicked NASCAR into overdrive. You don't just lose your biggest star and not react – and NASCAR did, with gusto.
NASCAR officials sought advice from biomedical scientists who were analyzing how crashes harmed the human body, then figuring out ways to stop the harm. They looked into ways to avoid carbon-monoxide poisoning. They bulked up the rulebook by eliminating racing back to the finish line under caution.
By 2005, SAFER barriers were installed at every Cup track, full-faced helmets were mandatory, and EMTs were in the first vehicle to arrive at every crash. In all, more than 20 new safety measures have been undertaken in the 10 years since Earnhardt's death.
Some of this might seem mundane, but keep in mind that seat belts were initially perceived as a bad thing in racing because they could trap you inside the car during a fire – a racer's biggest fear. Even the public was slow to realize the benefits of a seat belt; many states didn't enact a seat-belt law until the '90s.
Ten years after Earnhardt's death, the sport is undeniably safer. Look no farther than Elliott Sadler's crash last year at Pocono. It was the hardest impact NASCAR ever has recorded, yet Sadler walked away.
But while the sport may be safer than ever, it's not as robust as when Earnhardt still was racing. Ratings and attendance are down. NASCAR continues to struggle to get on the front page of the sports section … except when the story involves an Earnhardt. With Dale Jr. not competing for wins or a championship – apologies here to Dale Jr., who never asked for this – the sport's biggest story continues to be one from the past.
How do you grow a fan base when your most valuable asset is no longer around?
This is how we begin to see the lingering impact Earnhardt has on the sport. When it comes to safety, he continues to be a part of NASCAR's advancement. When it comes to his legacy and the role it plays in growing the sport, he is a drain. That's not a knock on Earnhardt, but recognition of the giant he was.
It's not just that NASCAR hasn't been able to fill his shoes in the 10 years since his death but also that everyone around the sport still is trying.