20 years ago, Dale Earnhardt’s death on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001 sent shockwaves through the professional auto racing community. On February 18, 2001, Dale Sr. lost his life at the 43rd running of “The Great American Race” following a devastating collision on the outside wall at Daytona International Speedway. He was 49 years old.
Even after all these years, we still feel the impact of possibly the most tragic NASCAR wreck of all time. Here’s a look at exactly what happened leading up to, during, and in the immediate aftermath of that fateful day.
Dale Earnhardt: NASCAR Legend
Known as the Intimidator, Earnhardt left an indelible mark on the sport of professional auto racing. With 76 race wins, 428 top-10 finishes, and 22 poles in 676 races run, Earnhardt also won a whopping seven Winston Cup championships, tying for the most all-time with Richard Petty.
Before the legendary NASCAR driver’s untimely death at the Daytona Beach race track, Earnhardt was able to finally snag a Daytona 500 win in 1998. It was an important moment in the Kannapolis, North Carolina native’s career, considering that victory at the “Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing” had eluded him for many years. Coming into the 2001 running, he was going for a second Daytona 500 victory. Unfortunately, Dale would never get that second victory.
What Happened at the 2001 Daytona 500?
Dale Earnhardt was calm and confident the morning of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Though Senior led for 17 laps in his No. 3 Goodwrench car, the real battle that day was between Michael Waltrip’s No. 15 Chevrolet and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 8 Chevrolet. Considering that both Waltrip and Dale Jr. were members of Dale Sr.’s racing team, Earnhardt raced an uncharacteristically defensive race, seemingly content in hanging onto third.
On lap 173, there was a massive wreck that took out 18 cars, and the race had to be red-flagged so that the cars could be removed and the debris could be cleaned up.
During the caution period, Earnhardt chillingly told Richard Childress, the owner of his No. 3 car, “Richard, if they don’t do something to these cars, it’s gonna end up killing somebody.”
The race restarted on lap 180, with Junior and Waltrip still duking it out for first. On the final lap coming into turn 4, Earnhardt made light contact with Sterling Marlin, causing him to slightly lose control. As he attempted to regain it, he collided with Ken Schrader’s car and slammed head-on into the retaining wall at speeds of around 160 MPH. After spinning wildly, both cars eventually came to a stop on the infield grass.
Schrader escaped his race car with minor injuries. He then quickly went over to Earnhardt’s car to check on his friend. It wasn’t good. The severe head injuries he had sustained were clear.
Moments later, Michael Waltrip had won the 2001 Daytona 500. Sadly, his trip to Victory Lane would be shrouded in tragedy. Dale Earnhardt Sr. was pronounced dead at the Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach, Florida by Dr. Steve Bohannon at 5:16 PM Eastern Standard Time. The autopsy report showed that Earnhardt died instantly of blunt force trauma to his head as well as a basilar skull fracture.
Sporting News would later refer to the day that Dale died as “Black Sunday.”
The Aftermath of Dale Earnhardt’s Death
On February 22, funeral services were held for Earnhardt at Calvary Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Soon after, both a police investigation and a NASCAR-sanctioned investigation were conducted to determine whether there were any preventable causes surrounding Earnhardt’s death. Bill Simpson, whose company Simpson Performance Products made the seatbelt that Dale Sr. wore during the race, resigned following speculation of serious safety flaws with the belt. NASCAR officials implemented rigorous safety improvements as a result, including mandating safer barriers and the HANS device, which was a head and neck restraint.
Though Richard Childress announced that there would be a moratorium on the No. 3 car, it was later brought back to the NASCAR Cup Series in 2013 for Childress’s grandson, Austin Dillon.
Now, Dale’s fatal crash certainly wasn’t the first tragedy in motorsports. In fact, fellow drivers Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty had sadly died in wrecks just the previous year. But, Dale’s death was a worldwide news story. The tragedy would truly show, even to folks who had barely of NASCAR before, the immense dangers that race car drivers face when they step inside that car.
This post was originally published on February 18, 2019.