Earnhardt’s Death Still Resonates 10 Years Later
“A long, long time ago, I can still remember
How that music used to make me smile.
But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver.
Bad news on the doorstep;
I couldn’t take one more step.
I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride,
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died.”
Those lyrics, to “American Pie,” written by Don MacLean in 1971, carried a generation forward from the turbulent decade of the 1960s. They were written about the death of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper in a plane crash somewhere in the bucolic countryside near Clear Springs, Iowa.
They could have been written about Feb. 18, 2001, when Dale Earnhardt died in turn four at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
It hardly seems like 10 years ago that Dale Earnhardt left us.
Who can forget standing there listening to Mike Helton utter the words, “We’ve lost Dale Earnhardt”?
The collective breath of NASCAR Nation was sucked out of every chest, and the sense of loss was similar to when the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up. No one could comprehend what we had just heard, even though we knew it must be so. It just couldn’t be…could it? Could the legendary Intimidator, also known as Ironhead, really be gone?
NASCAR without Dale Earnhardt? Say it wasn’t so.
Yet, as tragic deaths often seem to bring about, the 10 years since have been chock full of change. There is now a chassis designed to take the brute force of such an impact as the one that killed Earnhardt and channel it away from the weakest link (the driver).
We now have mandatory head-and-neck restraints for all drivers, helmets for all pit-crew members and all manner of safety-inspired rules and regulations on pit road. Those were an outgrowth of the general feeling that Something Had to Be Done.
Earnhardt’s death was the last in major stock-car racing, following on the heels of similar crashes that claimed the lives of fourth-generation star Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, Jr. and Tony Roper, as well as Blaise Alexander in ARCA.
The hue and cry raised as four promising lives were ended after smashing a concrete wall at high speed grew louder with each passing, and Earnhardt’s death was the capper that turned an entire sport on its collective ear.
All five drivers were killed after sustaining basal skull fractures, caused when their helmeted heads snapped forward on impact. Indy Car driver Gonzalo Rodriguez suffered the same fate.
Racing was losing drivers at a rate not seen in decades.
Something did indeed have to be done.
NASCAR would have to battle on without arguably its biggest star. It was a time of great grief and sadness, but there was something underneath all the pain: the spirit that defines the sport and its fans.
That is true of the fans, of course, but one point that cannot be mistaken is that NASCAR itself rallied and made the sport safer by leaps and bounds.