NASCAR’s annual February pilgrimage to Daytona Beach for the 53rd Daytona 500 will be bittersweet for fans, competitors and officials, as this season’s event marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of the great Dale Earnhardt.
Earnhardt died in a last-lap accident in Turn 4 of the 2001 Daytona 500, as the cars he owned — those of Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — finished first and second.
The ensuing outpouring of emotion from a legion of NASCAR fans around the nation opened the eyes of many to the sport, and a boom period followed.
In the aftermath of one of NASCAR’s darkest days, long-overdue safety innovations to the cars and the racetracks were put into place that have neutralized many of the risks involved in motorsports.
While the man may be gone, his legend lives on at tracks across America, as black flags emblazoned with a white “3” saluting the fallen hero fly to this day in infields on race weekends. Some wonder how the sport would be different were Earnhardt around today. While it’s impossible to know for sure, it’s safe to assume that at 60 years of age, he would be retired by now.
Earnhardt’s role as garage representative would likely not have diminished, though. The unofficial driver spokesman who marched into the NASCAR hauler when circumstances warranted, Earnhardt would likely be just as outspoken as a team owner.
And speaking of his team, would Dale Earnhardt, Inc. still exist as an independent operation, not having merged with Chip Ganassi Racing? Would Dale Earnhardt Jr. still wheel the iconic No. 8 Chevrolet, never having fled the organization after a falling-out with his stepmother, Teresa?
These are but a few of the questions that will remain unanswered. But one thing is assured: Earnhardt’s profound impact on auto racing didn’t end with his tragic death.