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‘The Day’ Is Gut-Wrenching History Times Three

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, February 18 2011

Today is the 10th anniversary of the day Dale Earnhardt died. SPEED has filled in a lot of the gaps from one very dark day. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

As a hard-card carrying member of NASCAR’s Citizen Journalist corps, and as a motorsports fan, I admittedly watch an inordinate amount of programming on SPEED.

That’s not a blanket endorsement of the many hours of NASCAR happy-talk on the network, or even some of the original series that are not NASCAR-related. But in-between judicious use of the MUTE button during a typical “Victory Lane” telecast (take a breath and/or Valium, Kenny Wallace), the comprehensive Sunday evening updates on “Speed Center” (formerly “The SPEED Report”) and replays of any “Barrett-Jackson Classic Car Auction,” a must-see gem has emerged.

Next scheduled airing of “The Day: Remembering Dale Earnhardt,” is today at 10 p.m. (ET), 10 years after his death in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, 2001. While any number of print and on-line journalists – including the staff of RacinToday.com – will be waxing poetic on their recollections this weekend, it’s difficult to compete with the combination of film footage, background music and one-on-one interviews that make up this chronological recount of “Black Sunday.”

Recall that the 2001 Daytona 500 was the opening act of NASCAR’s landmark network TV deal with FOX Sports, and the debut of a broadcast team featuring former three-time Sprint Cup champion Darrell Waltrip, former Earnhardt crew chief Larry McReynolds and host Mike Joy. Each contributes to the commentary during separate interviews, as does David Hill, chairman/CEO of FOX Sports Group.

More prominent are race-winner Michael Waltrip in his first TV interview on this still sensitive topic and team-owner Richard Childress, for whom Earnhardt won six of his record-tying seven Cup championships. Ty Norris, executive vice president of Dale Earnhardt Inc., offers some key behind-

Richard Childress, Earnhardt's team owner and friend. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

the-scenes insights on Earnhardt, as do public relations representatives J.R. Rhodes and Jade Gurss and reporter Marty Smith of ESPN.com.

But the truly compelling figure of this piece is Ken Schrader, veteran driver of the No. 36 Pontiac famously pictured crashing into Earnhardt’s black No. 3 Chevrolet high along the 31-degree banking between Turns 3 and 4 on the race’s final lap.

Let’s backtrack for a moment to a Sunday that greeted the teams and NASCAR’s loyal fans as sunny and warm. Having undergone offseason neck surgery, Earnhardt was returning to Daytona International Speedway – site of his popular first Daytona 500 victory in 1998 – convinced he was healthy and ready to contend for an unprecedented eighth Cup title.

During a taped, pre-race interview with Waltrip, an ebullient Earnhardt said: “I’m feeling a lot better today than I did several years ago, because of family, because of my life. Because I think I’m a better person than I used to be. I got it all right now, Darrell. I got it all. Really, I’m a lucky man. I have it all.”

That statement is the first of many that, in retrospect, ring with irony 10 years after. I covered Speedweeks in 2001 as motorsports beat writer of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and have vivid memories of what went down in the hours following the checkered flag and Earnhardt’s crash.

But I had completely forgotten about “The Big One” late in the race, a multiple-car crash down the backstretch that launched Tony Stewart’s No. 20 Pontiac into the air and sent Smoke to Halifax Medical Center. The wreck prompted NASCAR officials to red-flag the event to a halt, and a solemn Childress recalled a brief radio conversation with Earnhardt as the clean-up crews went to work.

Childress quoting Earnhardt: “ ’If they don’t do something to these cars, it’s going to end up killing somebody.’ That kinda always sticks…that’s one of the things I can remember. And I don’t remember at what point he said that, but it was after Tony’s wreck.”

It was during the stoppage that Michael Waltrip realized not only  he was leading, but that DEI teammate Dale Jr. was running second with Cap E in third – just as car-owner Earnhardt had predicted. Waltrip didn’t falter when the race went green, crossing the finish line with Junior as his wingman even as all hell broke loose between Turns 3 and 4.

When the crumpled and smoking cars of Schrader and Earnhardt came to rest in the grass just off the

One look and Ken Schrader knew there was trouble. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

apron, Schrader unbuckled his safety harness, exited his car and figured he’d go over and “shoot the bull” with Earnhardt. Despite the carnage, Schrader surmised that because Mikey had won the race and Dale Jr. had finished second, Earnhardt “shouldn’t be too frigging mad.”

When Schrader reached the No. 3, its window net was up as he peered into the cockpit. “Right away he was in trouble,” said Schrader, calling and motioning for the emergency crews to get there quick. “They were there quick, but just quicker yet,” Schrader said. “And, uh, I just knew that he was in trouble.”

Meanwhile, Waltrip had only begun to celebrate the end of his career-long 462-race winless streak as “the greatest day ever in the history of NASCAR.” The euphoria lasted for perhaps a half-hour, when Waltrip first noted that neither Earnhardt nor Dale Jr. had joined him. Norris unexpectedly was pressed into service to accept the owner’s trophy on Dale’s behalf.

Moments later, Schrader took it upon himself to first congratulate Waltrip, and then inform him that Dale had been transported to the hospital in serious condition. Teresa Earnhardt, Dale’s wife, Dale Jr. and Rhodes arrived there within minutes. Their worst fears were confirmed soon enough, and it is this segment that tugs at the heart, as we see grown men brought to tears all these years later.

I had worked with Rhodes, Earnhardt’s PR rep for sponsor GM Goodwrench, on several occasions with mixed results. Truthfully, I viewed Rhodes as a human shield – a guy whose job it was to tell you the interview with Earnhardt was maybe an hour or so away…or right after the last practice debriefing…or 10 minutes from now…when in reality the interview was never going to happen.

To see Rhodes, a big man, choked up at the memory of comforting Dale Jr. and then meeting with Earnhardt’s crestfallen crew is powerful TV. Same with Ol’ D.W., a motormouth who at one point is rendered speechless. Childress, slumping ever deeper into his seat and his voice growing quieter, struggles to mumble, “It was just a bad day.”

Back at DIS, Michael Waltrip recalled climbing into a van with his wife, Buffy.

Waltrip: “When we got in the van together it was the first time I had been alone with her and she said, ‘Dale’s dead.’ I started wondering how I was supposed to feel at that moment, and I haven’t stopped wondering since.”

In the track’s now-crowded garage area and infield media center, no official word of Earnhardt’s

NASCAR president Mike Helton and Michael and Darrell Waltrip. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

condition had been released by NASCAR – fueling rumors that “The Intimidator” had died. In what rates as perhaps the day’s cruelest twist, the anxious bystanders included Schrader, back from his visit to Waltrip in Victory Lane.

Schrader: “One of the NASCAR officials who I knew, knew what the deal was, I asked him…(because) people were starting to leave and stuff…and I said, ‘Hey, is it official?’ ”

Schrader, quoting the official: “Well, we ain’t got official word…”

Schrader: “I never cuss anybody, but I said, ‘Listen you blankety-blank, tell me what the deal is. I was just down there’…and so then they told me.”

Smith was among the media sensing an announcement that would have implications far beyond the typical Sunday night NASCAR highlights package.

Smith: “At that point I remember (NASCAR President) Mike Helton coming into the media center and standing up there at that podium and saying those words that have now been etched in our brains forever.”

Helton: “This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements that I’ve ever personally had to make. But after the accident in Turn 4 at the end of the Daytona 500, we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.”

Smith: “Those words were…impossible.”

Darrell Waltrip recalled Earnhardt telling him during that now prescient pre-race interview, “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.”

Waltrip: “It was setting up to be a tremendous day for him personally and for him professionally.”

Staring into a camera through his trademark sunglasses, and grinning from ear-to-ear on race-

'We lost Dale Earnhardt' 10 years ago today. (Photo by RacingOne/Getty Images)

morning, Earnhardt added: “You’re going to see something you probably hadn’t never seen on FOX.”

And that, NASCAR Nation, will forever stand as the definition of “foreshadowing.”

Unfortunately, there is no input from Teresa Earnhardt, who to my knowledge never has granted an interview on this subject, and Dale Jr., who went on the record during a recent session on rival network ESPN as being uncomfortable with the public attention paid to the anniversary. Basically, Junior has urged everyone to move on.

Too, the program would have been stronger with comments from Danny “Chocolate” Myers, Earnhardt’s popular gas-man; Sterling Marlin, whose contact with the rear end of Earnhardt’s car triggered the crash and later prompted death threats by distraught Cap E fans, and Rusty Wallace, Earnhardt’s best racing buddy and now a NASCAR analyst with ESPN.

Appropriately, I’ve watched “The Day,” three times this week – twice as a fan and once to take notes for this report.

When it comes to TV sports documentaries, I believe ESPN’s wide-ranging “30 for 30” series sets the standard. As it stands, “The Day” is top-shelf journalism, of which everyone at SPEED and NASCAR Media Group should rightly be proud.

Watch it once beginning tonight, and I bet you’ll need to see it times three.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, February 18 2011
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