‘How did we let this happen?’: Revisiting the Dale Earnhardt crash at the Daytona 500


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 old-school fandom worked into a frenzy.

“People didn’t realize how hurt Dale had been back in 1996 and then again in ’99,” recalls Richard Childress, car owner for six of Earnhardt’s seven Winston Cup championships and his closest friend in the garage. A broken collarbone at Talladega and Earnhardt’s rushed return had taken away his feel for the car. A broken bone in his neck at Atlanta had him essentially driving with one arm in 1999.

“He got real discouraged and he talked about quitting, but I begged him to come back,” Childress says. “I told him it wasn’t him. Our cars weren’t fast enough and I’d fix that. I talked him into it. He got fixed up and our cars got fixed up and in 2000 we almost won the championship.”

Earnhardt was seemingly everywhere throughout 2001 Speedweeks. He finished second in his division in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, second to youngster Tony Stewart in the Bud Shootout All-Star event, and third in his 125-mile qualifier. On Friday, he produced a genuine Intimidator moment when he was spun out by Indy 500 champ Eddie Cheever in an IROC event, sliding his Pontiac through the grass, whipping it back up onto the banking, finishing seventh, then stalking a terrified Cheever on pit road after the race.

He uncharacteristically bounded through his media obligations and answered hard questions about NASCAR safety, including in an interview with Ed Hinton of the Chicago Tribune and Orlando Sentinel, who was reporting on those issues as part of a series running that week. It suggested that, had Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr. and Tony Roper worn head and neck restraints, they would likely still be alive. That’s when Earnhardt, asked if he would wear a HANS device, had groused, “I ain’t wearing that damn noose.”

He was so adamant in his distaste of the carbon fiber brace that when General Motors, Ford and NASCAR brought esteemed automotive safety expert Dr. John Melvin to a January 2001 Daytona 500 test session to make a presentation to drivers on its benefits, Earnhardt was the only no-show. In the days leading up to the race, his car’s garage stall was in between those of Dale Jarrett and Bill Elliott, both of whom were fitted for devices by HANS co-inventor Robert Hubbard.

“I was within a few feet of Earnhardt and he just didn’t want to hear about the HANS,” Hubbard recalled in his book “Crash! From Senna to Earnhardt,” published just prior to Hubbard’s death in February 2019. “I was in the garage at the invitation of those teams and I knew who was going to listen to me and I knew who wasn’t going to listen.”

The evening before the 2001 Daytona 500, Earnhardt held a business meeting with old friend and rival Terry Labonte. As they signed what was sure to be a lucrative souvenir contract, Earnhardt suddenly said, “That’s if I make it that far.” When everyone else in the room broke out into laughter, he never joined them.

“It was strange enough when he said it at the time,” Labonte said when he recalled the comment in 2019. “But it sure came back to my mind just about exactly 24 hours later.”

On race day, there were so many of those stories, especially during the prerace ceremonies. Teresa Earnhardt, always quick to leave the grid and get back to the motorcoach in time to watch the start of races, instead uncharacteristically lingered. Her good luck kiss to her husband, captured on live TV, looked longer and more impassioned than normal.

Even the walk to get to that point had been different. Normally, his march to his waiting ride was a gotta-get-there mission. But this time he stopped to shake hands, laugh it up and hug it out.

“He came up and was like, ‘Hey, you can do this. We’ve got good cars, man. We’re gonna do this together,'” recalls Dale Earnhardt Jr. “He didn’t do that before races. I never saw him. I’d be at my car getting in and he wouldn’t come up to me, you know? Like, dang, I was just another racer. But this time, he made a point to come see me.”

He also threw his arms around Kyle Petty, the man whom he worked so hard to avoid throughout the 2000 season after Petty’s 19-year-old son, Adam, was killed in a Busch Series practice crash at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on May 12, mortally wounded with a basilar skull fracture. The car was Adam’s No. 45 and Kyle Petty’s HANS device was sitting in the cockpit waiting for him, one of only five drivers in the 43-car field to wear one that day.

“There’s a great photo of that moment,” Petty says. “He hugged me and said, ‘I’m thinking about you and I love you. I just want you to know that, and I know this is hard.’ And that was it. He got in his car and I got in my car and we ran a race.”

THE RACE ITSELF was a good one, with 49 lead changes swapped among 14 different race leaders. Earnhardt led four times for a total of 17 laps up front. He diced it up all day with old Daytona 500 rival Sterling Marlin, and two cars he owned, driven by Michael Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr.

“A great day was unfolding,” then-NASCAR president Mike Helton remembers thinking from race control, the press box booth where NASCAR executives and officials monitor and officiate the race below. Behind Helton sat NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. in the “crow’s nest.” France Jr. was happy. Fox was happy. So were the 150,000 people in attendance, as indicated by their roars whenever The Intimidator took the lead.

“I thought for us to be able to deliver it to Fox on their premiere Daytona 500,” Helton says, “was everything we wanted it to be for the audience that was watching it on television.”

The only big-ticket item missing from the show was the “Big One.” It happened with 25 laps to go, a multicar crash on the backstretch that involved 20 cars, nearly half the field. Tony Stewart’s orange No. 20 machine took a hard right-hand turn and drilled the concrete wall with a perfectly centered shot from the nose of his Pontiac. As the car turned around backward, a pair of roof flaps snapped into place, designed to keep the 3,400-pound machine from going airborne. But two hits from onrushing cars punted Stewart’s car into the air. It did a pirouette, landing on the hood of another car and barrel-rolling twice before landing atop teammate Bobby Labonte‘s car and eventually sliding to rest, destroyed, in the backstretch grass.

It looked — and was — awful. But Stewart climbed out of what was left of his car, shaken but OK. But how, especially without any head and neck restraints?

When NASCAR and Joe Gibbs Racing looked over the car in the garage, they discovered that the steering wheel was bent, dented from the impact of Stewart’s full-face helmet. The head-on collision meant his head had traveled straight forward, stopped before it could extend into a deadly head whip. His steering wheel had likely saved his life.

“So, there’s a stupid saying that you’ll hear around the sport. ‘The ones that look really bad are never really bad, and the ones that don’t look bad can be bad,'” Petty explains. “Tony’s crash looked really bad, right? Stuff flying everywhere. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. That’s energy that’s leaving. It’s going away from me with that junk. It’s not going back into my body as a race car driver. And that’s the other stupid saying you’ll hear. ‘It’s not how fast you go, it’s how fast you stop.’ And Tony never really stopped, did he?”

With the field parked under a red flag so crews could clean up the mess, Earnhardt chatted with Childress on the radio. “He was relieved when we told him that Tony was OK,” Childress recalls. “Then he said to me, ‘Richard, they are going to have to do something about these cars or they’re going to get someone killed.’ At the time I was like, ‘OK, man, I hear you.’ But we were all focused on getting the race restarted.”

The restart came on Lap 180, with 20 to go. On Lap 183, Earnhardt was in the lead. One circuit later, he allowed Michael Waltrip to slide by, taking Earnhardt Jr. with him. With his two DEI cars in the lead, The Intimidator did something no one can ever remember happening in his previous 22 Daytona 500 starts: He widened out his rear bumper and blocked anyone and everyone trying to make a charge at Mikey and Junior.

“We all knew that the biggest threat to keep one of us from winning the race was Sterling [Marlin],” Waltrip says of those frantic final 17 laps, running first with a mirror full of teammate Earnhardt Jr. and the black Chevy of Senior zigzagging back and forth to keep two different lines of cars at bay, the inside line led by Marlin and Rusty Wallace and the group in the outside lane led by Schrader.

As that scramble rolled through the final two turns of the event, Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. were breaking away, hammering off Turn 4 toward the checkered flag. Marlin had attempted one last push to catch them, moving below Senior down the backstretch. That opened the door for a wall of cars, three-wide behind Earnhardt as they entered the last turn.

When Earnhardt dropped low in front of Marlin, he hadn’t completely cleared the nose of the No. 40 Dodge and was turned to the left and onto the flat apron at the bottom of the track. That forced Earnhardt’s car to ricochet back up into the steep 31-degree banking, cutting across the front of the pack of the cars behind him.

For a fraction of a second, the nose of Earnhardt’s Chevy corrected itself, pointed briefly in the right direction to resume racing. There was even a puff of brake smoke. It looked as though his save from Friday’s IROC race might happen again. But then Schrader’s car hit Earnhardt in the passenger side door, creating a sudden surge of speed and turning both cars into the wall. Schrader was sandwiched between the concrete barrier and the nose of Earnhardt’s ride.

According to the official accident report, Earnhardt’s Monte Carlo was traveling 160 mph when it blasted into the bare concrete wall at the 1 o’clock angle and immediately decelerated by 42-44 mph. The impact registered around 60 G’s, so much force that it pushed the entire right front corner of the car from an aerodynamic curve into a flat surface that fit the wall as perfectly as a jigsaw puzzle piece. The engine stayed put, but everything around it moved, in some cases a full two or three feet to the right.

His 184-pound body was thrown far enough out into the right center of the cockpit that he suffered a blow to the back of his head. Earnhardt suffered a broken ankle, broken ribs, a fractured sternum and cuts to his scalp and chin. But the fatal injury was a basilar skull fracture, with breaks in every bone where the skull meets the spine. The impact also broke a left side lap belt that was already frayed, but multiple doctors interviewed said that, due to the nature of a basilar skull fracture, Earnhardt’s mortal wound had already been inflicted by the time the force of the crash broke the belt.

All of these events happened in the span of 80 milliseconds.

ON THE FOX broadcast, Darrell Waltrip shouted encouragement to his brother as Michael snapped a career 462-race winless streak to become Daytona 500 champion. But he was immediately distracted by Earnhardt’s crash, watching the No. 3 car as it slid down the banking and into the infield grass, clearly under no control. To the 17 million people watching at home, the crash looked like nothing, especially compared to Stewart’s spectacular accident a half-hour earlier.

But the racers knew better.

“You could tell in the communication from those arriving on scene,” Helton says of his view from race control. “And watching Ken Schrader, quite frankly, move around the way he was moving around. You got the sense that something wasn’t right.”

Schrader became the day’s unwitting messenger of tragedy. His car slid alongside Earnhardt’s and they stopped nose-to-door in the infield grass. When he limped around to talk to his friend, he instead dropped the window net to an unimaginable scene.

Months later, when the photos of the car were released as part of NASCAR’s presentation of its crash investigation, hardly any image didn’t include blood stains. To this day, all Schrader will say of what he saw is, “I just knew that it wasn’t good. Dale was in serious trouble.” His sudden frantic waving to the arriving trucks of the Daytona International Speedway safety crew was the first real indication to the world that something was indeed very wrong.

Dr. Steve Bohannon had been a Daytona Beach resident since 1986, working at Halifax Health Medical Center, located less than a mile and a half from the speedway’s start-finish line. In 2000, he was hired by the racetrack as its chief emergency doctor. He arrived at Earnhardt’s car less than 10 minutes after the crash, after crews had already cut the roof off the car and a surgeon stationed closer to the scene had already been administering resuscitation efforts.

“Any time the driver’s unconscious, we know it’s going to be a difficult situation,” Bohannon said in January during a visit to Daytona, his first time back to the track in years. “When I arrived and took a look, he had obvious signs of what we call a basilar skull fracture — things we don’t like to see in a driver, blood coming out of the nose and airway, blood coming out of the ears. Unconscious, unresponsive, not trying to breathe.

“Truthfully, when I took a look at him in his car, when you have no signs of life after a major blunt trauma, major car accident, the chances of being resuscitated and survival from that are close to zero, but we try heroic measures.”

While Michael Waltrip pulled into Victory Lane, Earnhardt Jr. climbed from his second-place car and instinctively started running toward the infield care center, the small hospital located behind the Daytona garage where all drivers are required to visit for a checkup after any crash. He made eye contact with Schrader, who was behind a curtain being examined. As soon as Earnhardt Jr. saw Schrader’s eyes, he knew he would need to go offsite to Halifax Medical to see his father.

In the Halifax Medical trauma room, Bohannon and his coworkers tried to inflate Earnhardt’s collapsed lungs, performed a chest X-ray and continued pumping his body with blood. There were 12 to 15 medical personnel in the room, each doing their task amid the controlled chaos. That’s when Bohannon realized someone else was in the room with them. It was Teresa Earnhardt.

“She stood on the back wall of the room, and she was very composed. She didn’t interrupt, she didn’t, um, disrupt anything,” he says. “She was the only one that was in the room other than medical personnel.”

She had arrived with her stepson, Earnhardt Jr. The trauma room was just inside the door. He took one look and instantly recognized by the body language of the doctors that the battle was over.

“We went in there and knew it right away,” he remembers now. “When I realized that was the way that this was going to go, that Dad was gone, I turned and saw [Earnhardt’s PR representative] J.R. Rhodes and ran to him. There was this noise coming out of me that I can’t re-create. I couldn’t do it for you right now. It’s just like a bellow of shock and sorrow and fear.”

“Having Dad was like a cheat sheet, like knowing all the answers to everything. And I was like, ‘Man, I’m going to have to do this without that for the rest of my life.'”

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

In the waiting room, Childress was with other family and crew members. He was beating himself up for talking his friend out of quitting and couldn’t shake that “they’re going to get someone killed” comment during the red flag. Darrell Waltrip was there too, with a growing number of NASCAR officials. When the news was brought to them from the emergency room, everyone there in that moment who talks about it now says what they remember most is silence.

“To this day, I don’t know why I went to the hospital,” Waltrip says. “I think it was just to be with my family, my racing family. We compete and sometimes we fight and we want to beat each other on the racetrack, but this is a small group of people who do what we do. We travel together, we live together, we’re a tribe.

“So, now, here we all were, balancing grief, the loss of our friend. But I think we were all also thinking, ‘Where do we all go from here? The leader is gone. How did we let this happen?'”

ONE BY ONE, cars started leaving the hospital to return to Daytona International Speedway. Michael Waltrip was not there. Schrader had walked to Victory Lane and delivered the terrible news of what he believed had happened in the middle of Waltrip’s celebration, causing Waltrip to leave immediately.

Bohannon was still in the trauma room, watching a technician prepare Earnhardt’s body for the mortuary. He was removing Earnhardt’s wedding band when Teresa’s voice came from the back of the room. All she said was, “No.”

“The technician looked at me like, ‘What do I do?’ And I said, ‘Do what she says,'” Bohannon says. “I walked out after that. That’s always stayed with me.”

Bohannon rode back to the track with Helton. It had been nearly two hours and they were about to step into the media center to address the world. The doctor had never been to a news conference, let alone be asked to field questions in one. Before stepping out of the NASCAR trailer, Helton asked his colleagues, “How in the world do I say that we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt?”

NASCAR vice president Paul Brooks replied: “Just like that.”

Helton walked into the room packed with cameras, held his microphone and worked up the courage not to cry over the loss of his friend. “This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements that I’ve ever personally had to make,” he began, “but after the accident in Turn 4 at the end of the Daytona 500 … we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.”

In the garage, just a few paces from where Helton was speaking, Earnhardt Jr. had returned to the garage to see his team. Crew chief Tony Eury Sr. was also his uncle, handpicked by Earnhardt Sr. to lead his son’s career. He told Eury what had happened, assuming he already knew, but it was the first he was hearing of it, and the stoic old mechanic broke down.

“I went back in my bus in the room and shut the door to my bedroom and just sat there,” Earnhardt Jr. says. “I thought to myself in that very moment, ‘I’m gonna have to do this by myself.’ The rest of my life. Having Dad was like a cheat sheet, like knowing all the answers to everything. And I was like, ‘Man, I’m going to have to do this without that for the rest of my life.'”

The 24-year-old thought about himself, his own racing career and his life as a fatherless son. But he had might as well have been conjuring the feelings of the entirety of NASCAR.

“I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know what’s next.’ I thought I had this path and this direction, with him, to do what we were going to do. Whatever that was. Racing and winning, Budweiser and No. 8 cars, DEI, championships,” he says. “And now I’m thinking, ‘I wonder what’s gonna happen with all this stuff?’ It was weird. It was a weird emotion. Where were we supposed to go now?”

On the night of Feb. 18, 2001, phones started ringing at the homes of HANS device co-inventors Jim Downing in Atlanta and Robert Hubbard in Michigan. The calls were from stock car drivers and teams. They wanted to talk about head and neck restraints. NASCAR’s safety revolution was finally taking shape.

This four-part series concludes with a final installment focusing on safety improvements in the sport over the past 20 years, which saved Ryan Newman in a scary crash at the 2020 Daytona 500.

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