Patrick Reusse: As soon as Dale Earnhardt's car hit the wall on that final turn, nothing else mattered at Daytona (Feb. 19, 2001)
- Article by: PATRICK REUSSE
- Star Tribune
- February 16, 2011 - 11:15 PM
Nancy Ring was a young woman visiting Daytona Beach in the early '80s. Her knowledge of stock-car racing was minimal, at best.
Ring had spent a couple of hours in a saloon called "Memories." She was walking across the parking lot. There were a couple of men near a car, with the trunk open. "Hey, young lady," one said. "Do you want a pair of jeans and a shirt?"
Ring shrugged and said: "Free? Sure, I'll take free clothes."
The man asked her sizes, reached into the trunk and handed her a pair of Wrangler jeans, a Wrangler logo shirt and then said: "Do you want me to autograph those?"
Ring looked at him and said: "Why would I want to ruin some new clothes by having you autograph them?"
The other fellow looked at her in amazement and said: "You don't know this is Dale Earnhardt, do you?"
Ring did not. But the chance meeting with Earnhardt, then driving a Wrangler-sponsored stock car, created a spark of interest that has become a life's work for Ring. She now works for Daytona International Speedway. Ring was repeating this story Sunday morning near the speedway's press box, a couple of hours before the start of the Daytona 500.
"I became a Dale Earnhardt fan that day," Ring said. "He's still my favorite."
This did not make Ring unique with stock-car fans. All that was required to judge Earnhardt's popularity was to look at the No. 3 hats and T-shirts and jackets being worn by the spectators crowding the speedway. All that was required was to hear how much louder the roar was for Earnhardt when he took the lead in Sunday's race.
Earnhardt was in the mix all afternoon, giving hope to Ring and those tens of thousands of his fans. And then there was a crash - one that looked innocent enough - on the final turn of the final lap. There were tears in Nancy Ring's eyes an hour after the crash. It was not yet official, but the buzz with the track people was getting stronger:
The paramedics were unable to get a response from Dale in the car.
And then, by 6 p.m. in the East, it was, "He didn't make it."
How it could happen now? How could it happen here, 500 yards from where two of his employees, Michael Waltrip and his son Dale Jr., were finishing 1-2 in the 43rd Daytona 500? Dale Jr., Waltrip and Steve Park drove for Dale Earnhardt Inc..
Earnhardt was doing his racing for Richard Childress Racing, as he had since 1984. He wouldn't leave a guy capable of putting him in a car that would win six points championships and 67 Winston Cup races in 17 years. Now, late on what had been a warm, blue, perfect Florida afternoon, Waltrip was getting his first victory. And Dale Jr. was right behind. On the last turn, the elder Earnhardt was trying to push past Rusty Wallace, Sterling Marlin and Ken Schrader to create this astounding finish to the Daytona 500: An Earnhardt car, followed by an Earnhardt in an Earnhardt car, followed by the Earnhardt responsible for this racing dynasty.
And then Earnhardt's famous No. 3 nudged the side of Marlin's bumper and started to hurtle toward the Turn 4 wall. Schrader's Pontiac was there and gave Earnhardt's car a smack.
Even before that, Earnhardt's car was on a direct line for contact with the concrete barrier. Last year, three drivers died in NASCAR's three major series: Kenny Irwin, Adam Petty and Tony Roper. NASCAR received considerable abuse from the media for not pushing hard enough for safety devices. One of these is a harness called the HANS device, used in open-wheel racing.
The goal is to lessen the whiplash of the head and neck in collisions exactly such as those mentioned. Several veteran NASCAR drivers complained the device restricted their arm movements on the track. Dale Earnhardt was one of those. Why would "The Intimidator" need something like that? He was the terror of the asphalt - the fearless, mustached tough guy surrounded by the black-painted covering of the No. 3 Chevy.
But when a car traveling 180 takes a right, and there's a concrete wall a few yards away, and your head is not completely secure, even the best, most confident driver in the world can't be sure. And what happened to Dale Earnhardt was that he died.
The emergency doctors at Halifax Medical Center declared him dead at 5:16 p.m. The official announcement came from NASCAR president Mike Helton two hours later.
Dr. Steve Bohannon, a trauma doctor at the speedway and Halifax Hospital, said Earnhardt never showed any signs of life. He said the injuries to the base of his skull fit those that would be immediately fatal.
In all likelihood, Dale Earnhardt died at 4:15 p.m., seconds before Waltrip, the driver he rescued from 17 winless Winston Cup season, and his son reached the finish line.
Would a HANS device have saved Earnhardt's life? "I don't know," Bohannon said. "I suspect not." But maybe. .
Patrick Reusse can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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