Pedley: Story Of Decade Is Not Open To Debate
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
With just a couple hours left until the first decade of the 21st Century comes to an end, I thought it might be a good time to think about its defining moment in terms of NASCAR. I keep coming back to the final turn of the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
So much changed in those few moments when Dale Earnhardt’s car hit the outside wall at DIS and then came to a sliding halt on the grass on the infield side of the track.
In fact, it all changed.
Some of the change was for the better. Too much of it was for the worse.
Not so strangely, I don’t remember much about the racing portion of the event that day.
I remember it was a beautiful Florida day. Over the final laps, shadows were getting long and there was that late-afternoon yellow tint to everything as the sun began sinking below the front-stretch grandstands.
And I remember that Kenny Schrader, a personal favorite with whom I had a long talk in his infield hauler just hours before the race, was kind of in position to get the victory.
From the press box, you could see the gathering storm as the pack of bobbing cars blew past for the last time. I was sitting in the front row and had to lean way forward in my chair to see them go by. And selfishly, I was thinking about potential story angles and first paragraphs.
By the time the pack leaders headed into Turn Three, I believe it was pretty obvious that Michael Waltrip was in prime position to get the victory. I remember starting to say something to the reporter next to me, Dave Woolford of The Toledo Blade. He stopped me in mid sentence and said something about trouble.
Near the front of the pack exiting Turn Three there was some wiggling and squirming. With the banking as steep as it is, you can see the tops and hoods of the cars as they come around through Three and Four and I remember Earnhardt was in the middle groove with Rusty Wallace behind him. Below was Sterling Marlin and above, Schrader.
Then it was smoke, a blur of 200-mph cars going in different directions and Earnhardt, hood flapping around like it was in a hurricane, being pushed sideways through Turn Four by Schrader. And I remember seagulls filling the air above Turn Four.
Dang, I thought, there goes the Schrader-victory story. I leaned forward and looked down to see Waltrip take the checkered flag. And I started to stare at the laptop keyboard, just assuming the Earnhardt-Schrader thing was inconsequential.
In a quick glance to my left, I saw Schrader out of his car and kind of running around and I thought; geez, is somebody actually going after Earnhardt? Good luck with all that, Kenny.
For about five minutes all was normal in the press box. It was all keyboard clicking and respectful whispering. But on the periphery to the left, vehicles kept arriving at the site of Earnhardt’s and Scharder’s wrecked cars.
“That look normal to you?” I asked Woolford. No response.
But more and more press box attention started turning to the crash site. People started asking The Question: Is he out of the car yet?
Somebody saw Dale Earnhardt Jr., they said, running down pit lane toward the site. Yep, there it was being replayed on the monitors. And in Victory Lane, Waltrip was acting kind of weird.
About 10 minutes later, Woolford’s phone rang. After he hung up, he said it was a photographer who was at the crash site. He said Earnhardt was hurt. Bad.
Couldn’t be. Soft hit. Just tapped the wall. Right?
Soon other phones began ringing in the press box. And soon after that, I heard the word “dead” muttered.
Then again. Then again. Dead.
My colleague at the Kansas City Star, columnist Jason Whitlock, was sitting about two rows above me typing away. I climbed the press box stairs and told him what I was hearing. He looked up and just stared at me. It was a stare which half asked if I was kidding and half said get ready for a long night.
In those days, they brought the winner up to the press box for the post-race interview. Waltrip sat on a stool on a little stage in the front row. He squirmed and looked nervous and spoke in non-sequiturs. Then he bolted.
When NASCAR president Mike Helton finally came up to the press box, it was dark outside and inside. People’s faces glowed white from the lights of their computer screends.
Everybody knew what Helton was going to say but people still groaned when the words finally came out of the big man’s mouth.
I remember talking to the sports desk back at the Star. I remember having to tell them just how big of deal it all was – newspaper editors didn’t really follow auto racing and still don’t. The guys on the other end of the line seemed more concerned with making deadline and going home that Sunday night than springing into action to report on a huge story.
“It’s like Michael Jordan dying,” I remember saying. “On the court, in Game Seven of the finals.”
I think the answer back was along the lines of a blase; so, what time will you file the story?
By the time the story was filed, the folks at the paper had finally realized that this was indeed a big story. They have televisions in the sports department and ESPN is often on and if ESPN thought this was huge, then maybe this is big.
Whitlock was right. It was a long night. Followed by a lot of long days and airplane flights to places like Kanapolis and Charlotte and Las Vegas, where Teresa Earnhardt was scheduled to speak.
And there were a lot of the things which reporters hate the most; interviews with grieving friends, family and fans.
The negative impact of the event is both obvious and still being felt: The biggest star in the sport was dead
Earnhardt was so much more than just a successful driver.
He was for millions, a lifestyle. The Intimidator. The big dude in the black car and black driver’s suit who took nothing from nobody and then explained it with a wink. He was John Wayne, only living the swagger for real and not in the movies.
He was bigger than life among his peers. If you were a driver and he was walking up pit road your way after a race, you swallowed hard and kept your helmet on.
All that was obvious.
Not so obvious at the time was how his death would affect the sport short term and long. It affected both and that is what makes the death of Earnhardt the most important story of the decade.
In the short term, it brought out mainstream arguments about the brutality of the sport. It produced questions about; where to from from here?
NASCAR got a very bitter bump in popularity after the death of Earnhardt. The curious felt obligated to tune in, true fans wanted last looks and answers. TV Guide and People magazine attended the Monday press conference at Daytona the day after the race.
But the face of the sport was gone. Who would become the new face? Jeff Gordon? Please.
And to a degree, that void has never been filled. Earnhardt’s son has become a commercial success; Jimmie Johnson has won four straight championships; Gordon has been a crossover fixture on daytime and late-night television; Jeff Burton speaks eloquently of his sport; Mark Martin has become a populist hero; Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch have driven cars with head-shaking skill; Juan Pablo Montoya has brought Formula One eyes to the sport; Joey Logano has proven teens can drive something other than mom’s minivan.
But that void created by the loss of Earnhardt simply has not been filled. Not even close.
And the merely curious, they have moved on.
On the positive side, massive safety changes have been introduced. Everything from soft walls (which probably would have saved Earnhardt) to the HANS device to Cars of Tomorrow have been implemented.
And make no mistake, those things are saving lives still. Perhaps the lives of Gordon, Johnson and Martin this year alone.
Racing story of the decade? Dale Earnhardt dying in a crash on the final turn of the final lap of the sport’s biggest event is the racing story of all time. Period and exclamation point.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments