February 18, 2001. One of, if not the darkest day in NASCAR history. It was the day that no NASCAR fan can ever forget. Even if you weren’t a fan back then such as myself, you know the importance of this day.
It was a day that changed a sport that was neglectful of injury and death back then, now there hasn’t been a single death during a racing incident since then. Dale Earnhardt Sr., the Man in Black, arguably the best race car driver of all time, was tragically killed on the last corner of the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Some blamed Sterling Marlin, others blamed Ken Schrader, but in reality, they were blaming themselves for putting the blame on someone else. As depressing as it is, it was a racing incident that ended up to be the most infamous moment of Stock Car Racing’s history in the United States and across the world.
Earnhardt’s helmet and seat belt weren’t too secure that day which was likely why he sustained fatal injuries. However, 12 years after that horrific day, safety innovations have taken place like no other sport has or will ever do. NASCAR stepped up to the plate after Earnhardt died. The most iconic name in the sport was killed and safety was lacking. He wasn’t the only driver to pass away that year. Kenny Irwin Jr. and Adam Petty each passed away at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway just a few months before Earnhardt’s death.
Now things are different. No NASCAR driver has passed away due to injuries occurred in a race weekend event since then. The changes were too late to save Earnhardt and the many other drivers that passed away during racing incidents. The HANS Device was created several months after Earnhardt’s death and was made necessary to have for each and every driver. The device is a neck restraint that prevents the driver’s head and neck from moving will aboard the race car and has helped prevent serious injuries for some unbelievable events.
Richard Childress Racing has changed dramatically since that day. The man that replaced Earnhardt, Kevin Harvick, will be leaving the team at the end of the year. Earnhardt famous No. 3 Chevrolet will likely return to the Sprint Cup Series once again next year with Childress’ grandson Austin Dillon behind the wheel as the healing process continues, 12 years after that Sunday in Daytona.
Earnhardt’s life is being remembered today across the entire NASCAR world. Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, the team Earnhardt created for his son, will be holding a candlelight remembrance from 6pm-9pm this evening at the team’s shop on Highway 3 in Moorsville, NC.
Kerry Earnhardt, the eldest of Earnhardt’s children had this to say on his Facebook page: ”Remembering Dad today like everyday. Not for my loss, but for his..grandkids to meet, races to be won, the next big buck on the ridge.”
Eddie Gossage, President of the Texas Motor Speedway also had a comment about his favorite Dale Earnhardt Sr. moment as he stated “In ’82 I was in car in front of him & didn’t know he was there. Rammed me at 70 mph.”
It doesn’t matter how long he’s been gone. Dale Earnhardt Sr. will always be in the hearts of NASCAR fans worldwide.
Joseph Wolkin can be followed on Twitter at @JosephNASCAR.