Recalling Dale Earnhardt and the safety debate
Feb. 18 marks the 15th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s death in a crash on the last corner of the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. But when I think about what happened at Daytona, I always flash back to Sept. 9, 2000, a day I’ll never forget.
At the time, I was executive editor of NASCAR Scene, the largest and most respected weekly stock-car racing publication in the country. Sept. 9, 2000, was a Friday morning and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was racing that weekend at Richmond International Raceway. Normally, I go to the race’s host city the night before the race weekend begins, but my wife was eight months pregnant with our second child, so I stayed home in Charlotte Thursday night, got up at 5 a.m. Friday and drove to RIR.
As I was walking to the infield media center, J.R. Rhodes, Dale Earnhardt’s public relations representative, ran up to me and said: "Dale wants to see you in his hauler right away!"
I was stunned and a little concerned.
Earnhardt had long since established himself as the sport’s biggest star and treated the media as an obligation. He wasn’t rude or standoffish to us; he just didn’t need us to give him any publicity. He already had ascended to the top of the pack. Earnhardt never wanted to see me, or any other journalist, for that matter, unless he was mad about something.
Given that, I had no idea why Earnhardt wanted to see me. I couldn’t think of anything I’d said in print about Earnhardt that would have had his hackles up.
Back in those days, Bristol was always the last race in August, Darlington was run on Labor Day weekend and Richmond the second weekend in September. Back-to-back-to-back, this was the best stretch of the season: Three great tracks with real history and distinctly different personalities. But it was also a brutal grind, with high heat and humidity, tight schedules and a lot of pressure on everyone to perform.
That summer, two drivers already had died, both at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Adam Petty, just 19 years old, had perished in a NASCAR XFINITY Series crash during practice in May, and Kenny Irwin died in a similar crash in Sprint Cup practice in July. In both cases, the drivers had died of basilar skull fractures. And in both cases, the accidents were still under investigation, with rumors that the drivers each suffered from some mysterious mechanical malfunction that caused their throttles to stick.
At Darlington, one week before Richmond, the throttle stuck on Bobby Labonte’s Joe Gibbs Racing Pontiac and he had a terrifying crash in practice. While he walked away from it, the incident left him badly shaken. That weekend at Darlington, a group of drivers including Jeff Burton, Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett took NASCAR to task for not acting swiftly enough on safety in the wake of the deaths of Petty and Irwin.
There were rumors at the time, never confirmed, that the dissident drivers had acted in concert, carefully scripting specific talking points that each would discuss in respect to what they felt was NASCAR’s lackluster safety record.
The drivers pulled no punches and let it be known in no uncertain terms that they thought NASCAR was dragging its feet. It was a black eye for the sanctioning body, having several of its top drivers lambasting it for ignoring driver safety.
And so the next Friday at Richmond, NASCAR announced a drastic and controversial step: When the Sprint Cup Series went back to New Hampshire the following weekend, the cars would be required to use horsepower-robbing restrictor plates to slow them down. It was a step that didn’t go over well in the garage.
As I walked toward Earnhardt’s black No. 3 transporter, Earnhardt’s car owner, Richard Childress, approached me. "I just told one of your reporters that I think all the other drivers are a bunch of f—ing p—–s," Childress told me. "Make it sound good in print, OK?"
When I got inside Earnhardt’s truck, three other reporters were there: David Poole of the highly influential Charlotte Observer, syndicated national motorsports writer Monte Dutton and Henry Miller from Indianapolis. None of us knew why we were there, so we just sat and made small talk.
After a few minutes, Earnhardt burst in. He walked up to me and stuck his face right in mine. And then he did the same thing with the three other journalists. Finally, he turned to Rhodes and said in a loud voice: "Goddamnit, JR! I told you to get me the four biggest writers in racing, not the four f—ing fattest asses!"
Normally, if someone said that to you, you’d want to respond forcefully, but coming from Earnhardt, it was funny. We all laughed.
And then Earnhardt turned serious. "You know what I think of all those drivers who think racing is too dangerous?" he said. "I think they all ought to tie a kerosene rag around their ankles so the ants don’t crawl up their leg and chew their candy asses off."
He then talked for an hour or so about safety. Earnhardt said he knew the sport was dangerous and he accepted the fact that he could get killed racing. He talked about being a little kid and tailing his father, Ralph Earnhardt, around on the old NASCAR Modified circuit, where safety measures were virtually non-existent.
One story Earnhardt told was about being at a track in South Carolina where the retaining walls were made of railroad ties. Earnhardt said he saw a car hit one of the ties and send it flying like a projectile. It cut a man in half and killed him instantly, Earnhardt said.
Unfortunately, some of Earnhardt’s notions about safety were flat wrong. He told us that the reason his close friend Neil Bonnett died in a Turn 4 crash at Daytona in 1994 was because he wore a full-face helmet, the bottom of which served as fulcrum that broke his neck.
The bottom line on the discussion was this: Earnhardt believed racing was inherently dangerous and always had been, which he knew going in. And all the other drivers ought to just shut up and quit complaining about NASCAR and safety.
And they did: Once Earnhardt spoke, the rest of the drivers toned the rhetoric way down. Draw your own conclusions about whether that was a good thing.
The subsequent rumor — never confirmed or refuted — was that in the week between the Darlington revolt and Richmond, then-NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. called Earnhardt, his close friend and confidant, and told him that he had to put a stop to the driver safety complaints, that it was bad for business.
And so, Earnhardt dropped the hammer at Richmond and the safety debate slowed way down.
Until Feb. 18, 2001.