Two days before the 2001 Daytona 500, Michael Waltrip was walking through the drivers' motorcoach lot when he heard a gruff voice calling him. It was Dale Earnhardt, his longtime friend, and new team owner. Earnhardt summoned Waltrip to an impromptu meeting in his motorcoach.
Oh, no, Waltrip thought. He was certain that Earnhardt was going to chew him out for screwing up in a qualifying race a few days before. Waltrip had been in position to win but missed a shift and finished back in the pack.
He confessed that misdeed to Earnhardt, owner of Waltrip's No. 15 Chevy under the Dale Earnhardt, Inc. banner (DEI). Earnhardt brushed off his comments. Earnhardt said that he himself should have won that race, not Waltrip, but he had missed his chance, too. Regardless, he didn't want to talk about the last race. He wanted to talk about the next one — the Daytona 500.
It was a huge race for Waltrip and Earnhardt, indeed, the whole sport. It would be broadcast on Fox for the first time, the inaugural race in a massive new TV contract that would put NASCAR on center stage in the sports world in a way it had never been before.
It would be Waltrip's first race for DEI; he had entered 462 points races at NASCAR's top level and never won. The DEI car he would drive would be the best he had ever sat in. It was a big race for Dale Earnhardt, too. After a few down years, he had finished second in points the year before. The seven-time champion thought he had a chance to get a record-setting eighth title.
"We're going to win Sunday," Earnhardt told Waltrip. "We" meant one of Earnhardt, Waltrip, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. "It'll be the three of us against all of them at the end."
Under Earnhardt's prophecy, the three cars would form an impenetrable pack and ward off all challengers to take the checkered flag. It would require a unique alliance. Junior and Waltrip would be driving for DEI, the elder Earnhardt for Richard Childress Racing. Waltrip had never had a teammate before, and he had never had an owner lay out a plan of attack like Earnhardt had. "Whichever of us gets to the front, at the end, we're gonna push and we're gonna make sure that person stays in front, "Earnhardt Sr. said.
Waltrip was equal parts excited about the prospect and curious as to whether they would all stick to the plan. He was right to wonder. Waltrip himself was as desperate for a win as anybody in the sport; if it came right down to it, he would likely go for the win before he'd push someone, even a teammate, to it. Earnhardt Sr. was notoriously selfish on the track, and Earnhardt Jr. was a young driver still trying to prove himself.
Plus, this was the Daytona 500; nobody settles for second, no matter the oracle who divined the ending a few days before. When the end of the race came, could they trust each other? The answer was, of course not. It was easy to imagine any or all of them going solo on the white flag lap. Dale Jr. said later he thought the plan was "crazy" though he kept that opinion to himself. "In my mind I'm like, 'That's silly. I'm just going to do what I need to do for myself. I'm going to be selfish, and I'm going to win this race. If I win this race it's going to be because of what I did.'"
For the first three-quarters of the race, Waltrip ran with the leaders. A huge wreck on lap 174 (out of 200) involving 20 cars caused a red-flag delay as crews cleaned up the debris. When the cars got rolling again, Waltrip looked in his mirror. Right behind him were both Earnhardts. Soon they were running first, second and third. The end of the race was unfolding just as Earnhardt had predicted. With Waltrip in front and Dale Jr. in second, the elder Earnhardt was in third, trying to keep the rest of the field from getting by him. That left the race as a battle between Waltrip and Junior. "If either one of us had been in Dale's position," Waltrip wrote in his memoir, In the Blink of An Eye, "I don't think we would have been as good or disciplined or smart as he was at sticking to the plan."
As Waltrip hit Turn 3 on the final lap, Junior was in line behind him, and there was a three-wide battle for third between Earnhardt Sr., Sterling Marlin and Ken Schrader. Waltrip knew the race was his.
Waltrip came off of Turn 4, headed down the frontstretch, and looked at the flag stand. For the first time in his Cup career, he saw the checkered flag wave for him.
What he didn't see was the wreck behind him.
Driving the black No. 3 Chevrolet, Earnhardt was sandwiched between Sterling Marlin to his left and Ken Schrader to his right. Rusty Wallace was on his back bumper. Maybe the presence of Wallace's car took the air off of Earnhardt's spoiler and caused him to lose control. Whatever the reason, Earnhardt drifted low and made contact with Marlin's right front bumper. He spun first toward the infield; then over-corrected and headed up the track. A split second before his Chevy hit the wall, it was hit in the passenger's side door by Schrader's car. That made the contact with the wall slightly more head-on.
Earnhardt's hood flapped wildly. One of his tires, torn from the car, bounced away. His car slid down the banking and stopped in the infield grass. The noses of his car and Schrader's car were touching; the bodies formed a V.
Schrader climbed out of his car and walked to Earnhardt's. Meanwhile, Earnhardt's team owner, Richard Childress, tried to reach him on the radio, a common practice after a crash. "Dale, you all right?" he asked. "Talk to us, Dale. Dale?"
Schrader expected Earnhardt to be excited that his new driver, Waltrip, had won the race and pissed that he himself had wrecked. As Schrader unlatched Earnhardt's window netting, he immediately waved frantically to rescue crews.
For years after the crash, Schrader was reluctant to discuss what he saw inside Earnhardt's cockpit. He still hasn't discussed details. But on the 10-year anniversary of Earnhardt's death, he said, "I knew he was dead."
He didn't want to bear the burden of telling people that news. A few minutes later, in the infield care center, he saw Childress, who was one of The Intimidator's best friends. Childress asked Schrader if the injuries were serious enough that Earnhardt might miss a few races. Schrader said it was much worse than that. But he couldn't bring himself to tell Childress that Earnhardt was dead.
According to Jay Busbee's book Earnhardt Nation, two of the EMTs Schrader waved at, Jason Brown and Patti Dobler, shared a knowing look after seeing Earnhardt in the car. "Dobler cradled Earnhardt's head and gently closed his eyes, then briefly bowed her head in prayer," Busbee wrote.
• • •
As all of this was happening, Waltrip completed a cool-down lap. He says he didn't see the aftermath of the wreck, for which he is grateful. At least, he says, he had a few minutes to celebrate his first win before the news of Earnhardt's death reached his ears and turned one of the best days of his life into one of the worst.
Unaware of what was happening, he celebrated in Victory Lane. He wanted a hug from his team owner, to hear him gloat about how smart he had been to give Waltrip the job. Until that moment came, Waltrip was content to give interviews, get showered with confetti, and smile from ear to ear as photographers snapped his picture. The longer this went on, the more he wondered, "Where's Dale?"
Then Schrader showed up. Normally quick with a smile and the first to crack a joke, he didn't look right. He had sunglasses on, and his hat pulled low. "It was like he was hiding behind a mask," Waltrip wrote.
"It's not good," Schrader told Waltrip. "I think Dale's hurt. He's really hurt."
Again, Schrader could not bring himself to deliver the full brunt of what he knew. "I love you, bud," he told Waltrip, and then he walked off.
Shortly thereafter, Waltrip and his wife, Buffy, retreated to their motorcoach. By now he knew something was wrong, really wrong. "He's gonna be OK, right?" Waltrip asked her.
Through tears, she said, "Dale is dead."
• • •
The circle of people who knew that was small but growing. Perhaps the most haunting image of a day filled with them was the ambulance that carried Earnhardt pulling away from the crash site and out of the track. It moved slowly, as if the driver was in no hurry to get to Halifax hospital in Daytona Beach. That seemed like a sign, and a very, very bad one, of the severity of Earnhardt's injuries.
Based on the ambulance's slow pace, plus the fact Childress had gotten no response when he asked Earnhardt over his radio if he was OK, plus Schrader's reaction at Earnhardt's car, rumors spread. Journalists at the track heard, but could not confirm, that Earnhardt had died.
On TV, Fox broadcasters, stunned at the turn of events at the end of their first race, tried to balance the circumstantial evidence suggesting something terrible had happened with the fact they had zero confirmation. They didn't want to sensationalize the wreck — it didn't look that bad, maybe there was a simpler explanation for the slow ambulance — but they didn't want to neglect a story of massive proportions, either. They signed off at 5 p.m. without answering the biggest question of the day: Was Earnhardt OK?
After Earnhardt arrived at the hospital, doctors attempted to revive him. "He never showed any signs of life," said Dr. Steve Bohannon, the track's chief emergency doctor who also worked at Halifax's emergency room. Earnhardt was declared dead at 5:16 p.m., 37 minutes after the crash. The general consensus is that he died within seconds of hitting the wall.
The announcement did not come until nearly two hours later.
The tension during the time span between the crash and the release of the news was incredible. Had a perfect day — first-time winner, start of a big network TV contract, great race — turned incomprehensible? NASCAR executives Bill France Jr., Brian France, Mike Helton, and others met to figure out how to handle disseminating the news.
France Jr. and Helton, in particular, were good friends with Earnhardt. They were simultaneously in shock, mourning a friend and responsible for announcing the biggest story in the history of NASCAR, as well as one of the biggest in any sport.
They decided that the news was trickling out, and it was important for them to "authenticate" it. Helton has refused to describe those conversations except to say they ended with him being chosen to make the announcement that Earnhardt had died. He looked around and said, "We just lost the greatest driver we've ever had. What am I supposed to say?"
"Say that," they told him.
Like Earnhardt's plan of how to win the race, it sounded good. But executing it was another matter. "The realness of all that hadn't sunk in," Helton said. "There was part of me that thought, 'I'm going to wake up before I have to go do that.'"
• • •
He didn't wake up. The nightmare was real, and it lasted months. It was made worse by controversies surrounding the autopsy (a detective working the case says he was told not to attend), autopsy photos (the family fought for them not to be released) and uncertainty concerning what precisely happened inside the car.
The severity of Earnhardt's wreck was not easy to see; any number of crashes in any race in any season looked at least as bad. The 20-car wreck on lap 174 looked far more dramatic. Tony Stewart's car flipped over and over. But that's actually a safer kind of wreck, because the energy of the crash is dispersed in the flipping. Earnhardt's sudden-stop crash was the kind that scares drivers because the energy of the crash radiates through the driver.
An autopsy conducted the day after the wreck showed Earnhardt died of a skull fracture, the same injury that had killed three drivers the year before.
Earnhardt also suffered eight broken ribs, a broken ankle, and a broken sternum. NASCAR's six-month investigation cost more than $1 million and yielded a 324-page report. The investigators found several factors contributed to Earnhardt's death. They included the speed he was traveling when he hit the wall and the angle of his car when it hit the wall. NASCAR's report named a broken seat belt as a factor too, though this fact was disputed. The manufacturer said it was installed improperly.
The investigation showed Earnhardt was traveling 156 to 161 miles per hour when he hit the wall. His car slowed 42 to 44 miles per hour in just 80 milliseconds. Various reports indicated the force of the crash was like falling from a six-story building or being in a parked car and being hit by another car going 75 to 80 miles per hour.
Earnhardt refused to wear a closed-face helmet or a HANS device, both of which NASCAR mandated after his death. It is impossible to know whether either one of those would have prevented his death.
• • •
In the immediate aftermath of the wreck, Childress wondered if he should close his team. But he remembered a conversation with Earnhardt in which Earnhardt insisted Childress keep racing if anything happened to him. Childress promoted Kevin Harvick to Earnhardt's seat and changed the car number from 3 to 29; he eventually put his grandson, Austin Dillon, in that car and put the familiar No. 3 back on it.
The impact of Earnhardt's death still shapes the sport, even 20 years later. A massive effort to improve safety launched after his death has saved many lives. Nobody has died in a race in NASCAR's top three series since Earnhardt.
The final seconds of his life have been picked apart, analyzed, like no other athlete in history. All the other drivers involved say nobody was at fault.
It appeared, on the final lap, that Earnhardt was protecting the lead for Waltrip and Dale Jr. In a half-joking way, friends and competitors say that would have been the first time in his life that he helped anybody else win. Said Waltrip: "It feels tragic. But for him, it could have been majestic, where he thought, 'There you go. I'll leave you all with that. That's my final act.' That could very well be true."
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)