On February 18th, 2001, the city of Daytona Beach, Florida came together to welcome the arrival of world class racers to the 2001 Daytona 500; one of the biggest NASCAR promotions of all time. Fathers and sons cheered beneath the glaring Florida sun as mothers wiped ice cream from the mouths of babies. The audience were gathered to promote the Daytona theme of the year: safety.
Dale Earnhardt was one of most legendary figures in all of NASCAR. He as a seven time racing champion and was the Kyle Busch before Kyle even started competing. He was a speed demon and daredevil and the loving father of three kids.
Before Daytona, NASCAR passed new laws on shocks and springs used on the cars. Earnhardt publicly went out and proclaimed that NASCAR took the spirit of racing. “They [The rules] took Nascar Winston Cup racing and made it some of the sorriest racing. They took racing out of the hands of the drivers and the crews. We can’t adjust and make our cars drive like we want. They just killed the racing at Daytona. This is a joke to have to race like this,” he told the public.
To improvise for the new rules, his team developed a new aerodynamic package for his car. The pack was tested at Daytona and Talladega for the Winston cup. During the Talladega race, he passed seventeen cars in four laps to win the race. The difference between those races and the Daytona 500 was that Daytona was the first track the pack would be tested on where the track was intentionally kept narrow to keep cars close together.
During the race, Earnhardt kept a consistent third place. The number 40, running the inside of the track, hit the end bumper of Earnhardt. Earnhardt’s car veered out of control and as he tried to regain control, the number 36 car slammed into Earnhardt’s car. Earnhardt’s world famous number 3 M&M Pontiac slammed into the barrier at around 155 to 160 miles per hour.
Autopsy revealed that Earnhardt suffered a fractured skull, eight broken ribs, broken left ankle, fractured sternum, collarbone and hip abrasions. The fractured skull was the fatal blow that killed him.
The media referred to Earnhardt’s death as Black Sunday. NASCAR launched a public investigation into the safety policies which they then relayed to the public. The death of Earnhardt gave rise to the upgraded SAFER racetrack barriers, wider lanes, mandatory roof hatch escape systems for the cars, and the development of the next generation car of the future based on the concept of safety for the driver.
Controversy future arose when it turns out that Earnhardt’s seatbelt was defective. Doctors speculated the seatbelt could have saved Earnhardt’s skull from colliding with the car.
Nonetheless, Earnhardt left behind a historic legacy. His son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. continues to drive for NASCAR to this day. His car, the number 3 Pontiac was retired and the number 3 was announced to never be used for a car sponsored by GM Goodwrench again. Earnhardt’s car left this world with him, but neither were forgotten by their fans worldwide.