Dale Earnhardt Jr. says the entire 2001 NASCAR racing season takes residence in a heavily fogged area of his memory because of his father’s death in the season-opening Daytona 500.
“I don’t remember much about that year,” Earnhardt said in an exclusive interview with the Daytona Beach News-Journal. “It was just very heavy, very weighty; cloudy and it was a dark mood.”
His father’s race team, Dale Earnhardt Inc., had reached a new high as Michael Waltrip won the 2001 Daytona 500 and was followed across the finish line by 26-year-old Earnhardt Jr.
Yet that definitive high would soon turn into the ultimate despair after Earnhardt Sr. hit the outside, concrete retaining wall in Turn 4, sparking a mass pileup which cost the seven-time NASCAR champion his life.
Instead of celebrating his teammate’s triumph, Earnhardt Jr. was whisked to Halifax Health Medical Center, where he learned the fate of his father, the first and only driver ever to suffer fatal injuries in stock-car racing’s most prestigious event.
Earnhardt’s death not only sent the nation into mourning — his photo appeared on the cover of Time magazine that week — but sparked numerous investigations and eventual safety innovations.
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Earnhardt’s death wasn’t a one-day event. NASCAR’s own study of the crash lasted through the summer and eventually led to a host of improvements.
“Dad was sort of this invincible phenomenon that turned out to be human like the rest of us,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “People never imagined in a million years that he would be somebody we would lose. When that became a reality, that was a giant wakeup call for the sport.”
To NASCAR’s credit, no other driver has perished in a racing wreck since Earnhardt’s death.
Through it all, Dale Earnhardt Jr. tried to keep his head in the game during the 2001 season and kept racing after the dreadful day that became known as NASCAR’s “Black Sunday.”
“That year was like a nasty, nauseous hangover of a time,” he said. “I don’t mean the hangover was from drinking. I mean the overall mood was dark. I was hurting. Everybody was sad.
“We all knew we had to keep going but none of us were really ready or wanting to do that. We just did. We went through the motions. We put one foot in front of the other and kept going forward in one direction. That brought us to the racetrack almost each weekend where we felt the most comfortable. We were around our industry and our family.”
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Once the 2001 season was done, Earnhardt Jr. said he took refuge in hard-party mode.
“I came out of that year and started to raise a little more hell, started to party a little bit more with my friends,” he said. “I didn’t want to be alone. I always wanted to have some people around. I wanted company. I wanted friends.
“I wanted things to be happy and be light. I pursued that for several years and about run myself into the ground because we raised so much hell from partying so much.
“We had a regiment. There were certain nights of the week we were going to party and see the sun come up.”
No Daytona grudge
Dale Earnhardt lost his life at Daytona International Speedway and his son knew that he would have to come to terms with the iconic racing facility.
“I went back to Daytona that July, 2001, and I knew if I was going to keep racing, I was going to have to get OK with Daytona,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “If I was going to keep going in the sport for years and years, I didn’t want to be showing up at Daytona and be miserable and hating it, and holding it responsible for everything that happened.”
He arrived in Daytona Beach several days before the then-named Pepsi 400 with the hopes of reconciling with the high-banked tri-oval. He brought a few friends along for support.
It was a weighty moment for the sport’s most popular driver.
“We walked around Turns 3 and 4 where dad was killed,” he said. “I got out of the car, stood on the ground, looked at the track, and just sort of thought — not about anything in particular — I just stood there and took in some air and let the moment sort of marinate a little bit.”
What happened next was the stuff of fairytales.
After a few days of “goofing off” at the beach, Earnhardt Jr. arrived back at Daytona for racing duty. In three starts prior to the summer race at Daytona, his average finish was 26th.
After just a few practice laps in his No. 8 DEI Chevrolet, Earnhardt Jr. realized he had a “super-fast race car.”
He led 116 out of 160 laps and beat Waltrip back to the checkered flag by a scant one-tenth of a second, which set off a wild celebration not only in the grandstands but in the garage area.
“At that point I said, ‘All right. I’m good with Daytona. Me and Daytona are not going to have a problem going forward,’ ” he said.
He would wind up a two-time Daytona 500 winner. The first was in 2004 driving for DEI. The second was in 2014 wheeling the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
As time passed, Earnhardt Jr. gained a new appreciation of the Speedway, built on a shoestring budget and opened in 1959 by NASCAR co-founder Bill France Sr., because of its high standing in stock-car racing history.
“I love the history of the sport so much, and Daytona is like the original block of the foundation,” he said. “Daytona, Darlington and a few other tracks are really what this sport was built on.
“So much amazing history and great races and triumphs that happened at Daytona. I chose to focus on that and really appreciate the racetrack for what it really, truly is. That wasn’t that hard of a thing to do. It almost made me and Daytona closer.”
Earnhardt Jr. retired as a full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver following the 2017 season. He maintains a steady work schedule that includes co-ownership of JR Motorsports, racing analyst for NBC, and a podcast host in addition to several other business endeavors.
Now 46 and married with two children, Earnhardt Jr. is a completely different person from that 20-something party animal two decades ago.
He credits the transformation to his wife.
“I ended up meeting Amy and she spent about a decade trying to turn me around and straighten me out,” he said with a laugh. “Luckily for me, she’s a dedicated woman and stuck with it.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. agreed that his father’s death led NASCAR to fast-track safety measures. For example, by October 2001, head-and-neck safety devices (more commonly known as HANS) were mandatory equipment for drivers.
Soon after, NASCAR made several changes to the cockpit, including shock-absorbing seats, headrests, additional padding and more metal tubing in the roll cage.
NASCAR also required all its national series tracks to install steel and foam energy reduction (SAFER) barriers, which absorbs the blow from a vicious, high-speed hit.
Earnhardt’s death happened on the heels of one of NASCAR’s worst seasons of driver fatalities. During the 2000 season, the sport lost Adam Petty (grandson of Richard Petty), Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper.
NASCAR Chairman Bill France Jr. was always quick to point out that the sport was taking steps to improve safety before Earnhardt’s death. But there is no doubt the tragic loss of one the sport’s most recognizable stars motivated the sanctioning body to quicken the pace of safety research and development.
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“I feel that the sport losing its biggest superstar absolutely sent safety innovation into overdrive, and a lot of amazing innovation and creativity and development started happening and a lot of brilliant people brought new technology into the sport that helped a lot of drivers,” Earnhardt Jr. said.
“When somebody tells me, ‘You know, your dad’s death really made the sport safer for a lot of other people.’ I agree — but I also couple, connect and tether that to the doctors and scientists and engineers who helped develop HANS devices and SAFER barriers and those sorts of things.
“Dad couldn’t have made that himself. He didn’t spark this sort of revolution on his own. There were other deaths, too. Adam Petty’s death was a tragic loss for our sport. The Petty family is as big as the Earnhardt family in NASCAR.
“For them to lose their next generation — and we all saw Adam’s trajectory was up; he was going to be what Chase Elliott is today — and that was taken away from all of us.
“There was a lot of deaths in that period of time and I think dad’s (death) was the last domino that made NASCAR think ‘We might need to fast-track some new safety innovation into this sport to stop what is happening.’ It was a combination of a lot of things.”
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Dale Earnhardt won seven NASCAR Cup Series championships and became something of a superhero to blue collar families.
He dropped out of high school and started with nothing then built a racing empire as he embraced “The Intimidator” brand.
But his legacy in the sport is safety. His death brought about thoughtful safety changes, which has likely saved countless lives, including that of Ryan Newman.
Newman escaped serious injury in last year’s Daytona 500 after his car went upside down and absorbed a high-speed hit on the driver’s side on the last lap of the race. The veteran racer spent a few days at Halifax before being escorted out of the hospital holding the hands of his two young daughters.
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“Ryan’s accident absolutely would have turned out differently had that accident happened just a handful of years before,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We’ve come a long way in safety innovation, but I also think we will look at today’s race car years from now and think ‘How did we ever race that? It looks so unsafe.’
“I think what NASCAR has learned is that safety is always a work in progress and it’s never finished. There’s no perfect cockpit, seat belts, headrests. I think we have so much more to learn and we can do better.
“I think if we keep that same attitude — that we need to continue to strive to improve safety — we can’t step back and say ‘I think we got it.’ We need to keep looking at what we have and say ‘This isn’t good enough. There’s more we can do. There is more to learn and understand. We can make this better.’
“Hopefully, it doesn’t take another death for us to realize why we didn’t think of that. We have continued to drive safety forward for the last 20 years after dad’s death, so the momentum is still there.”
Godwin Kelly, longtime motorsports editor for the News-Journal, retired on Dec. 1, 2020.