Ten years ago, in the final lap of the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt fatally crashed his famed No. 3 Monte Carlo. Today what look back on perhaps the greatest driver in NASCAR history…
In a career spanning 27 years, Dale Earnhardt won 76 races and seven Winston Cup championships. But more than that, he was a charismatic, controversial figure race fans either loved, or loved to hate. His popularity – and long-running feud with rival Jeff Gordon – helped NASCAR grow from a backwater sport into a multibillion dollar empire.
Born April 29, 1951, in Kannapolis, N.C., Earnhardt had racing in his blood. His father Ralph was a leading driver on the Southeast dirt track circuit and won the NASCAR Sportsman Championship when Dale was 5. Though he tried to dissuade his son from taking up the sport, the kid was hooked. Ralph put his son to work in the shop and began teaching him the tricks of the trade.
Earnhardt dropped out of school to pursue his love of racing (a move he later characterized as “a damn fool thing to do”) and worked as a welder at a textile mill to support himself. At 17 he married for the first time. Two years later he’d divorced and remarried. By the time he was 22, he was divorced again and had three kids to help support. In 1973 his father died, leaving Earnhardt devastated. He felt he’d disappointed his dad.
Earnhardt made his stock car racing debut in May 1975, finishing 22nd in the World 600 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. By 1978 he’d become an established racer on the short track circuit, but the typical winner’s purse at such events was a mere $1,000. That year he also met Theresa Houston, who would become his third wife and be instrumental in managing his career.
Though he’d only competed in a handful of one-off NASCAR events, he got his big break when Rod Osterlund hired the inexperienced driver to front his team for the 1979 NASCAR season. For the first time, Earnhardt would be driving a top-notch car with a seasoned pit crew assisting him. The move paid off. In 1979 he was named NASCAR’s Rookie of the Year. The following year, he won his first Winston Cup Championship, becoming the only driver to take those awards back to back.
When Osterlund sold the team, Earnhardt jumped ship and went to drive for Richard Childress Racing. He struggled in the 1982 season, once breaking his kneecap in a collision. The next seasons brought him some impressive wins, but he wouldn’t take the Winston Cup Championship again until 1986. By the time he won his third championship in 1987, he’d become known as “The Intimidator” for his aggressive, take-no-prisoners driving style. If he couldn’t pass a driver, it was said, he’d drive him into the wall. In 1986 he clipped the rear bumper of a car driven by Darrell Waltrip and caused a massive pile-up. Earnhardt was fined $3,000. Waltrip accused Earnhardt of trying to kill him.
Earnhardt’s villainous image was enhanced by a sponsorship switch in 1988 which saw him driving a GM Goodwrench car painted black. New nicknames were coined, including “The Man in Black” and “Darth Vader.” ABC’s World News Tonight aired an unflattering piece on him and he spent much of his career as the most booed driver in NASCAR. But for every hater, there was another race fan who appreciated Earnhardt’s intense competitiveness and his no-nonsense approach with the media. In an age of carefully crafted sound bites, he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind.
Whatever you called him, whatever you thought of his racing style or personality, he was an indomitable presence on America’s racetracks. At his peak in the early 1990s, he took an astonishing four Winston Cup Series titles in five years, tying a record set by Richard Petty. At 43 he needed just one more championship to cement his place atop the record books.
But in the second half of the 1990s, he stopped winning. Some on his own crew said he’d lost his focus, concentrating too much on managing the Dale Earnhardt brand and not enough on racing. “Dale Earnhardt can deny it, but the T-shirt sales and the souvenirs are more important than the race team,” Earnhardt’s former engine builder Lou Larosa once commented. “Where is the incentive when you’re making $4 million racing and $40 million selling souvenirs?”
Things started turning around at the end of the decade. Earnhardt finally won the Daytona 500 in 1998, then won both races at Talladega in 1999. He took one of his most controversial checkered flags at Bristol, spinning out Terry Labonte. Looking something like the Intimidator of old, he finished 7th for the season.
In 2000 he notched two more victories and finished amongst the top at courses where he’d struggled during the 1990s. He climbed to No. 2 in the standings, an improvement perhaps a result of the neck surgery he’d had to correct problems lingering from a 1996 crash at Talladega.
By the 2001 season opener at Daytona, it seemed only a matter of time until Earnhardt claimed that elusive eighth title and became indisputably the greatest driver in NASCAR history. He’d already become NASCAR’s biggest moneymaker, taking home nearly $42 million in prize money over the course of his career.
But half a mile from the finish line, his life and career came to a sudden end.
Earnhardt wasn’t going pedal-to-the-metal chasing a checkered flag in characteristic Intimidator style when that fateful crash occurred. He was in third place, trying to protect the leads of Michael Waltrip (younger brother of the man who’d once accused Earnhardt of trying to kill him) and his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Coming around that last turn, his rear bumper was tapped by Sterling Martin. Earnhardt fishtailed, going into the infield before cutting sharply up the track, clipping Ken Schrader before hitting the wall at 180 m.p.h.
At first the crash didn’t look like anything out of the ordinary to the 195,000 fans gathered at Daytona, nor the millions more watching at home. But 90 minutes later, they learned the awful truth. Earnhardt had died on impact, the cause of death later determined to be basilar skull fracture.
Since Earnhardt’s death NASCAR officials have taken measures to make the sport safer. Head and neck support devices are mandatory, and new soft-wall technology helps disperse the force of a crash. Since the changes have been implemented, not a single driver has died from a race collision.
At this year’s Daytona 500, fans will honor his memory by raising three fingers in the air for each third lap. This salute will be just one of the many ways the sport remembers the man who did so much to help bring it into the big time.