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Scenes Of 2001 Remain Seared Into The Brain

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, February 20 2011

The view from the press box of Turn 4 at Daytona in 2001 was no better than it was from the grandstands or living room couches. It sucked. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

The day that Dale Earnhardt died will not, cannot, ever be forgotten by those who were there. Biggest star in the sport, biggest race in the sport, final lap, final turn.

It was the day the sport changed forever. Fans lost their anchor to the sport, the sport lost its cultural compass and competitors became hyper aware of their own mortality.

All seven of RacinToday.com’s senior writers were at Daytona International Speedway that February day back in 2001.

Here are those writers’ most vivid memories of that weekend of 10-years ago:

John Sturbin – I covered the events of Feb. 18, 2001 from Row B/Seat 7 in the Houston Lawing Press Box as motorsports beat writer of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. My colleague that day was Charean Williams, who was working as our sidebar writer out of the Infield Media Center. After Earnhardt’s crash, Charean’s proximity to the garage area and care center put her in the middle of a rumor mill that was reporting the unthinkable – that “The Intimidator” was dead.

Once that was confirmed, I was informed by sports editor Celeste Williams that my story would be

Fort Worth beat writer John Sturbin reported "the unthinkable". (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

going to Page 1 of the news section and that Charean would handle the main sports story on Michael Waltrip’s breakthrough victory. Fortunately, the weekend news editor that day was Tom “Lefty” Leferink, a former colleague from sports who knew I was an Earnhardt fan. He gave me a strict copy deadline but, strangely, didn’t assign an inch-count limit. “Just write it,” Lefty said. “We’ll find the space.”

Running on the adrenaline of the moment, I wrote a combination crash story/obituary that grew to around 50 inches. I recall the initial shock – and some tears – of my colleagues subsiding into an eerie silence as we all began to write.  My story just seemed to click. As new bits of information from the hospital or NASCAR officials or quotes from drivers, team-owners, etc., filtered in, the information fell into place. The story that appeared in Monday morning’s editions under the headline “Racing’s Earnhardt dies in Daytona crash” later was recognized with an in-house Amons Award for Spot Sports Reporting.

As one of the last media members to leave the press box that night, I recall standing and staring at Turn 4 for a long time, thinking about the death of a hero and the irony of Waltrip’s first victory coming under such tragic circumstances. And what a horrible way for FOX Sports to begin its landmark broadcast relationship with NASCAR. I mean, they killed Elvis in the first act. Now what?

Larry Woody – I was at Daytona (working for the Nashville Tennessean) and remember the silence that fell over the press box when Mike Helton announced that Dale was gone … but what I remember

Dale Earnhardt in good times at Daytona. The best there ever was. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

more than the crash is the aftermath.

I was on a radio show in Nashville at the time, and people would call in to talk about it, break down, and start crying.

I attended the memorial service in Charlotte on Thursday and interviewed Junior Johnson in the icy parking lot after the service; he said Earnhardt was the best there ever was.

I then drove on to Rockingham and all along the road, mile after mile, were flower arrangements, signs and banners in tribute to Earnhardt … most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.

Jonathan Ingram – My enduring memory of covering the weekend that Dale Earnhardt was killed at Daytona occurred on Friday. Two days before the fatal crash, Earnhardt competed in the IROC race. In a battle for the lead, Earnhardt’s Pontiac Firebird got shoved out of the draft by Indy car driver Eddie Cheever. Earnhardt made a spectacular save in the grass at Turn 1 to keep from crashing, one that rivaled his fabled “Pass in the Grass” in Charlotte.

Dale Jarrett, who won the IROC race, said over the PA shortly after climbing from his car that

Dale Earnhardt in Bud gear represents a vivid memory from the 2001 Daytona 500. (File Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

Earnhardt’s recovery demonstrated why “he’s the greatest driver in the world.” For his part, Earnhardt spun out Cheever on the cool down lap – much to the delight of the roaring fans in the grandstands – and then confronted the Indy car driver in a brief nose-to-nose conversation on the pit road afterward.

I had been trying to catch up with Earnhardt earlier on this particular day, hanging around the IROC garage in hopes of seeing him, the usual sort of bird dogging that racing reporters go through on a daily basis. Not seeing him, I decided, “I’ll catch up with him after the IROC race.”

But by time I got to the pit road, Earnhardt was surrounded three deep by print and electronic media members as he walked down the long Daytona pit road. As this human amoeba moved along, I ducked my head in and walked along to hear what Dale had to say. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s over and done with,” he said in the gruff tone he used when he was hacked off. Further evidence that he was unhappy about how he had lost: he refused to stop walking.

I saw a fellow journalist in this scrum with a tape recorder and figured I could borrow some quotes later if needed. Although I also needed to talk to Cheever, I stopped and just stood stock still on the pit road, watching in amazement as Earnhardt and the gaggle of media gradually retreated into the distance. “There will never be anybody in this sport like him again,” I thought to myself. Then I turned and went in search of Cheever.

Jeff Hood – I was a spectator at the 2001 Daytona 500. I sat on row 21 near the entrance of pit road. My eyes were glued on the No. 3 car as it slammed the Turn 4 wall on the final lap. I immediately knew that Dale Earnhardt was seriously injured, or worse, because of the angle of the hit and the tremendous impact. I barely noticed Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. zoom past as they headed toward the checkered flag. I’ll always remember listening on my scanner as team owner Richard Childress repeatedly asked Dale if he was OK. The silence that followed solidified by belief that something was terribly wrong.

Rick Minter – The things I remember most about that day are seeing Dale Earnhardt Jr., still

Atlanta beat writer Rick Minter remembers the phone call to Halifax Medical Center. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

wearing his firesuit, sprinting through the garage toward the infield care center, jumping into an SUV, I believe it was a Chevy Tahoe, and speeding out of the garage, across the track and onto Speedway Boulevard. I saw the same scenario play out with Danny Earnhardt a few minutes later.

Then being there holding a tape recorder when Ken Schrader came out of the infield care center, pale as could be, sort of mumbling some answers to a few questions. Then standing in the garage with Jim Utter of the Charlotte Observer, as he called Tony Stewart’s PR flak, Mike Arning, who was at Halifax hospital with his driver. Utter hung up the phone and said simply, “Earnhardt’s dead.”

Then at some point, the black No. 3 hauler left the garage. I remember thinking that I might never see that again, and that the trip to Rockingham the next week, always my favorite part of the season for many reasons, wasn’t going to be any fun at all.

Mike Harris – I was writing the main lead for The Associated Press at the 2001 Daytona 500 and in my usual closed-in, end-of-race mode, trying to write fast, accurate and interesting. It was a very good story, with Michael Waltrip winning and Junior close behind, with the old man having a great view of what his own neophyte team was accomplishing. In the moments just before the checkered flag, I

Mike Harris was the lead reporter for the Associated Press. He chronicled Feb. 18, 2001 for the world. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

was aware there had been an accident in Turn 4, but my mind was occupied with the finish and Waltrip’s long winless string.

In my focused state of mind, I barely heard people in the press box saying the last lap crash involved Earnhardt and it looked pretty bad. Finally, I had a moment to look up and see what was happening at the accident site and my heart went into my mouth as I saw track safety workers putting a tarp over the iconic No. 3. That could only mean one thing: A very, very bad injury or worse.

As the reports came in and it became apparent  Dale Earnhardt was dead, my mind was divided into segments. I’m not a cold person, but I knew I had a job to do and that job was to report on the Earnhardt crash and fatality as quickly and as dispassionately as possible. In the back of my mind, I was already grieving for someone I had known and become fond of over the past 12 years. The stories went in, one after the other, reporting the race, the crash, the confirmation of death, the post-race press conferences and the reaction from other racers, team owners, NASCAR officials and others.

Finally, about four hours after the end of the race, I sat back, finished with work for the moment. That’s when I realized my eyes were wet with tears. It was the worst thing that can happen in my chosen sport, the death of a participant and one I had a relationship with. It’s a night that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Jim Pedley – Writing for the Kansas City Star, I had come to know Missouri driver Ken Schrader a bit. He had become a “go-to” guy for me over the years. That is, he was one of those garage

For many race fans – and media – the sun went down and never came up again on the day Dale Earnhardt died at Daytona. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

people whom I really, really respect and make a point of checking in with as often as possible to get both on-the-record and off-the-record info and analysis. I remember I had a long sitdown with Schrader early in Speedweeks in 2001. I remember feeling that he was feeling that time was running short in his bid to get a victory in the 500.

Remarkably, as the race was blasting to a conclusion, Schrader was in position to get the victory. He was near the front, he was smart as they come and this was Daytona. Then, on the final lap, there was Earnhardt. Through turns 3 and 4 cars started wobbling and you could feel trouble coming. Then Earnhardt and Schrader were tangled up. As their cars rolled down onto the infield in Turn 4, I was actually angry at Earnhardt.

I switched focus back to the finish line and went to work; Turn 4 events were ushered to the back burner. The guy next to me in the press box, Dave Wolford of the Toledo Blade, elbowed me. “That don’t look good,” Wolford said, motioning to a growing beehive of safety workers around Earnhardt’s car.

No, it didn’t look good and it wasn’t.

Then the tarp came out and Woodford and I just sat staring at scene in Turn 4.

Woolford’s phone rang. It was from infield. He hung up, told me the news and we stared at each other. I walked up to where my colleague, columnist Jason Whitlock. was typing away. I told him. We just stared at each other.

I guess the thing I remember most about those hours surrounding Earnhardt’s death was doing a lot of staring in disbelief.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, February 20 2011
7 Comments

7 Comments »

  • T. D. Naylor says:

    High Five John, very good response to Mr. Ed. I loved Sr. and NASCAR has not been the same without him. I still get a lump in my throat remembering that day in Feb. 2001. That is not living in the past, it’s honoring a great man.

  • ed g says:

    Thanks all for the well stated if sad memories of that terrible day. I hope NASCAR’s tributes for the 10th anniversary match the accomplishments and legend of Dale Earnhardt.

    That said, I hope this is all repeated on the 25th anniversary. But for the love of all that’s holy, please let Dale rest until then. Life is for the living. Celebrate JJ’s incredible multi-year championship run, enjoy Kyle Busch’s determination to win at all costs while managing to be a whiny ti!ty baby at the same time, get in some good gossip about Smoke’s black eye, psychoanalyze Junior some more. There is nothing more to add to the story of Dale Earnhardt. Living in the past is only for historians and the severely neurotic. Move on.

    We will savor our memories of Dale without your assistance.

    • John Sturbin says:

      Take a breath, Ed. All seven of us now writing for RacinToday.com had at the very least a professional working relationship with Earnhardt, which made writing his obit under deadline conditions a real struggle. And you’re wrong about there being “nothing more to add to the story.” I’ve learned plenty watching and re-watching those interviewed for “The Day” on SPEED, and I’m certainly not living in the past. To ignore this significant anniversary would have been a disservice not only to the life and racing accomplishments of Cap E, but also to our readers. So, move on yourself.

      • ed g says:

        John, read what is written before the sarcasm. I applauded your collective tribute to Dale. Very appropriate and moving on the 10th anniversary of his death. My concern is the following:

        The future success of NASCAR cannot stay on the shoulders of Earnhardt. No more victories, no more interviews, no more larger than life presence in the garage and beyond. And the effort to put such a monumental legacy on his son has been extremely destructive to Junior’s racing and to NASCAR racing itself. Imagine baseball building it’s future as a sport by focusing much of its marketing today on Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle. Or their relatives. These two iconic figures meant as much to that sport as Earnhardt does to racing. But they are not central to the game today in terms of marketing and reporting.

        I can’t imagine the personal grief you must of felt trying to take care of your professional responsibilities on the day a man you knew and respected died doing what he and you care so much about. But please do not let personal feelings interfere with many people’s concerns about an over-reliance on Dale to market the sport and generate fan interest. No one can or should move on from remembering Dale Earnhardt’s accomplishments and legacy. But NASCAR cannot continue to decline in fan interest and attendance and remain a top tier sport. That is what I meant by focusing reporting on current driver’s and events. I will move on now and I hope you do the same for the sake of the sport we care about.

        • John Sturbin says:

          Ed: In no particular order, I trace the decline in NASCAR’s attendance and TV ratings to any number of factors: Aging fan base (as reflected by our staff) and an inability to connect with the 18-to-34 male demographic; five consecutive championships by Jimmie Johnson; multi-car teams that lock-up all the biggest sponsors; a Car of Tomorrow that is safer at the price of manufacturer identity; oversaturation of NASCAR-related TV programming during the week and an economy that has put millions of Americans out of work.
          The only connection to Dale Earnhardt that I see is the fact that Junior and his stepmom couldn’t do business together at DEI, and his subsequent struggles at Hendrick Motorsports have taken the luster off the sport’s most popular driver.
          The racing was very competitive in 2010, the crossover exposure for drivers never better. Those drivers were given the OK by NASCAR to “have at it, boys.” Plenty of personalities have emerged in just the past five years.
          But even the most devoted (and perhaps unemployed) NASCAR fan is going to have a difficult time justifying a weekend at the racetrack, or four hours in front of the TV on race day, when faced with a never-ending stack of bills.

          • ed g says:

            John, thank for taking the time to respond. Your points are valid and well taken.

            • John Sturbin says:

              Ed: All that said, doubt if I’ll be reminiscing here (or anywhere) on the 15th anniversary of Cap E’s death, much less the 20th. Career over-and-outta here!