MY NEW LIFE
Have you ever gotten out of bed in the morning, walked into the bathroom, looked at yourself in the mirror, and said, “Today things are going to change”? Me neither. I don’t talk to myself in mirrors. But I have gotten out of bed knowing that things were going to be different, and that’s exactly how I felt on the morning of February 18, 2001.
Big-time changes were happening for me, and I knew it. People around me knew it too, and they had been saying so all week, speculating and joking with me the way race people do. Still, none of us—certainly not me, and not anybody I talked to in the days afterward—suspected that the Sudden Change, the lightning-quick pivotal event that would burn that Sunday into our collective memory and alter the course of our lives forever, was only hours away.
On that morning the air around the Daytona International Speedway was heavy with the familiar smells of fuel and burning rubber. The track had been busy for two weeks in the run-up to the first big race of the season, the Daytona 500.
In case you’re not familiar with NASCAR, let me explain. Typical events in NASCAR’s top series are three-day weekends, with practice laps and qualifying heats on Friday and Saturday, followed by the big race on Sunday. The Daytona 500, however, is different. NASCAR holds its “Super Bowl” at the beginning of its season rather than the end, and this race, its richest and most prestigious, is the final act in an extended drama of speed and suspense known as “Speedweeks.” This year major spectator events during Speedweeks had included a 70-lap all-star race called the Budweiser Shootout and the season-opening races for NASCAR’s two lower-tier series, the Busch Grand National series and the Craftsman Truck series—plus the preliminaries for the Daytona 500.
Unlike other races, the qualifying laps for the Daytona 500 are run a week before the race, and only the first two starting positions are awarded when those timed solo laps are over. Four days later all drivers compete in one of two heart-stopping races known as the Twin 125s (nowadays their official name is the Gatorade Duels), battling for starting position in the Sunday race that will be watched by a quarter-million fans in the stands and millions more on television.
I knew the drama of Speedweeks well, but up until this morning I had always experienced the Daytona 500 as a driver. And I can tell you this: for a driver, going to the track on Sunday is like going to war. Other drivers may be your friends and colleagues on any other day, but on Sunday you are going out there against 42 other guys, and every one of them is a threat. Every one of them threatens your livelihood, just as you threaten his. When the announcer calling the race tells the television audience that drivers are “battling for position” on the track, that’s no metaphor.
And there is a thrill in that battle that no other experience can match. The feel of the wheel in your hands, the power of 750 horses under your feet, the roar, the blur, the bump, the difficult pass, together trigger an adrenaline rush that you will never capture anywhere else. Racing is a peak experience, and the feeling only intensifies when you win.
I knew the feeling of winning the Daytona 500; I’d won the race in 1989. I’d won plenty of other races too, a total of 84 during my Winston Cup career. I’d won the Cup Championship three times. On NASCAR’s list of All-Time Winningest Drivers, I was tied with Bobby Allison for third. (In the modern era of NASCAR, after 1972, I was in the lead.) But all of that was history now, because I had retired. On this Sunday I would not be walking to pit row for the start of the race. Instead I’d be climbing up to the broadcast booth in my new capacity as lead analyst for Fox Sports.
My kid brother Michael would be in the race, though. Sixteen years my junior, Michael had been driving in the Winston Cup series since 1985. He had started the Daytona 500 14 times, finishing five times in the top ten, but he had never won the race. In fact Michael now held the NASCAR record for consecutive starts without a win. In 462 Winston Cup races, he had never finished better than second.
This season, seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt had expanded his racing team to three cars, and he’d hired Michael to drive one of them. Earnhardt had an awful lot of confidence in his cars, and he liked Michael, so when people made comments about his selection of a driver who’d never won a race, Dale just brushed the criticism aside. His son, 26-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had been named NASCAR’s Rookie of the Year in 2000, would be driving the #8 car for Dale Earnhardt, Inc., and Steve Park would be driving Earnhardt’s other car, the #1 Chevy. Earnhardt would be in the race too, piloting the signature black #3 Chevy for owner Richard Childress.
I’d talked with my brother on Saturday, discussing the day ahead and its storybook possibilities. It was entirely possible, I told Michael, that he would win this race. He might very well get his first Winston Cup victory on my first day in the broadcast booth! If so, we would be like Ned and Dale Jarrett. Ned, the retired driver turned broadcaster, had been calling the Championship 400 at the Michigan Speedway in 1991 when his son Dale took his first checkered flag. Two years later the younger Jarrett had narrowly edged out Dale Earnhardt for the win in the Daytona 500 as his father openly rooted for him and coached him to victory from the broadcast booth. (Ned was embarrassed by his partisanship in that race and had tried to apologize to Earnhardt afterward, but Earnhardt had waved the apology away with a smile. “I’m a father too,” he said.)
Earnhardt had been busy during Speedweeks, as he always was at Daytona, and I had worked hard to schedule a single on-camera interview with him before the big race. Our glamorous roving reporter Jeannie Zelasko, however, spoke with him multiple times. It seemed like whenever Jeannie came around the garage, Dale suddenly wasn’t that busy anymore. On Friday I was scanning the monitors in the broadcast booth when I noticed that Jeannie was interviewing Earnhardt yet again. When she finished, I broke in. “Hey Jeannie,” I said, “give those earphones to Dale, will you?” Jeannie quickly obliged, telling Earnhardt that I had a couple of questions for him.
“Hey Dale,” I said, “how come you always have time for Jeannie but you never have time for me?”
Dale gave me a cockeyed grin, as though I’d just asked the stupidest question in the world. “She’s prettier,” he answered.
“So tell me, Dale,” I said, “when are you going to retire?”
Dale pretended to be mystified by the suggestion. “Why should I retire?” he replied. “I’m still competitive!”
The jab was good-natured. Dale and I were now friends, but our relationship had not always been cordial. We were rivals on the racetrack for years. Our rivalry had spilled into public view in the early 1980s after a flippant remark I’d made in an interview; I’d told a print reporter that I could say anything I wanted about Dale and his team because “they wouldn’t be able to read it anyway.” Dale hadn’t found that comment nearly as funny as I had.
My career had peaked in 1992, but there was no denying that Earnhardt was still competitive, especially at Daytona. Throughout the 1990s he had won every Twin 125 in which he had competed, an incredible ten consecutive victories. In 1998 he had finally taken the checkered flag in the Daytona 500, a win that announcer Mike Joy had called “the most anticipated victory in NASCAR history.” After the race, as Earnhardt slowly rolled toward Victory Circle, every crew member from every team had lined up on pit road to shake his hand. It was an unprecedented show of respect, a moment that solidified Earnhardt’s place in the pantheon of NASCAR’s greatest drivers.
In the Twin 125s earlier this week, Earnhardt had finished third, earning the seventh starting position for the race on Sunday. He would be starting on the inside in the fourth row when the flag dropped on the 2001 Daytona 500. Dale Jr. had earned the sixth position, so he’d be starting on the outside in the third row. My brother Michael, behind the wheel of the #15 car, had qualified for the 19th starting position, so he’d be starting in the tenth row. Steve Park would be starting in the 13th row, in the 25th position.
The race was scheduled to start at one o’clock, but the pre-race broadcast began at noon. As noon approached, I took my place at the studio desk opposite Chris Myers, who would be hosting the pre-race show. Jeff Hammond, my friend and former crew chief, sat between us. Jeff would be working as a roving reporter during the race, but he seemed to think his main job during Speedweeks was to talk me through the broadcasts in much the same way he’d talked me through countless trips around the track. After some light-hearted banter, the three of us introduced the television audience to the issues we had identified as the potential themes of the day.
The car manufacturer Dodge was making its return to NASCAR this year, after a 16-year absence. Most people hadn’t expected much from Dodge after such a long layoff, but by now it was clear to everyone that the Dodge team, led by Ray Evernham, had really done its homework. Bill Elliot had won the pole for the big race by posting the fastest average lap speed during qualifying—187.715 miles per hour—in a Dodge. Stacy Compton, also in a Dodge, had finished second in qualifying. Sterling Marlin had earned the third starting spot for the big race by winning the first of the Twin 125s in a Dodge.
The blistering speed of the Dodge cars had fueled speculation about the reasons for their dominance. Were they aerodynamically superior? Wind tunnel tests conducted by NASCAR in Atlanta on Monday seemed to indicate they were. Were their engines better? Driver Jimmy Spencer, quoted that morning in the Charleston, South Carolina, Post and Courier, said, “The Dodge is about 40 horsepower more than a Ford or a Chevrolet. . . . Maybe the good Lord above will make them all blow up on Sunday. I’d love it.”
Dodge’s rumored advantages had pushed the other teams into a frenzy of last-minute tweaking, finessing, and second-guessing. On Saturday Jeff Gordon blew the engine of his Chevrolet during the final hour of practice. Gordon’s team replaced the engine overnight, and other teams, suddenly dissatisfied with the performance of their engines, nervously followed suit. On the night before the Daytona 500 ten cars received engine transplants.
In addition to speed, drivers and owners were concerned about safety. The tragic memories of 1994—Neil Bonnett’s fatal crash in turn 4 during practice, and Rodney Orr’s death during practice three days later—still haunted Speedweeks, and more recent fatalities on the circuit had revived the concern. On May 12, 2000, Adam Petty, the 19-year-old grandson of NASCAR legend Richard Petty, was killed when he lost control of his car and crashed into the wall in turn 3 in Loudon, New Hampshire, while practicing for a Busch series race the next day. Exactly eight weeks later Winston Cup driver Kenny Irwin lost his life in a crash on the same track, in the same turn, also during practice.
Beginning in 1988 NASCAR had tried to improve safety by requiring the use of restrictor plates at the two tracks with the longest straightaways, the superspeedways in Daytona and Talladega. (By reducing airflow into the carburetor, a restrictor plate starves the engine of oxygen, effectively slowing the car down.) Driver reaction to the restrictor plates was mixed. While lower speeds reduced the risks to drivers and spectators in the event of a crash, the limitations also made the cars increasingly identical. Like other NASCAR initiatives intended to create parity on the track, the restrictor plates tended to produce races in which cars traveled around the track in huge bunches. With dozens of cars racing only inches apart at more than 180 miles per hour, even a small mistake by one driver could easily trigger a massive pileup. Since the introduction of restrictor plates, Daytona and Talladega had become notorious for awe-inspiring multicar crashes. And the fans loved ’em—as long as the drivers were able to walk away afterward.
Outside one of the entrances to the stands this year, NASCAR had set up a special “show car.” It was painted like Earnhardt’s #3 Chevy, but this car was cut away to reveal the safety features NASCAR had made mandatory. A plaque beside the car pointed out the window netting, the welded tubular steel roll cage, the four-point shoulder harness, the foam-and-rubber fuel cell, the roof flaps designed to deploy when a car started spinning in order to prevent it from flipping or going airborne, and other features intended to protect the driver. This was state-of-the-art stuff, and it helped drivers and fans maintain the belief that NASCAR racing could be dangerous without being lethal. That belief was essential to the sport. In order to drive all-out, drivers needed to believe they could walk away from any crash. Fans, on the other hand, were well aware that a spectacular accident could happen at any moment; that prospect was a big part of what made motor racing so exciting. Nobody came to Daytona to watch badminton. This was NASCAR, and it was not a sport for sissies.
Back when I was driving, I’d become accustomed to working with tunnel vision; my field of view had been restricted to what was happening right in front of me at any given moment during a race. I’d been forced to rely on my crew chief and a team of spotters, communicating by radio, to let me know what was going on behind me and elsewhere on the track. Now, however, my vantage point in the broadcast booth offered me a whole new perspective, and I was still adjusting to it. Now I could take in the entire field all at once. What an impressive spectacle it was! With the crowd on its feet, the cars, two by two, followed the pace car around the track. As the column swept through turn 4 and the pace car ducked into pit road, the field surged toward the start/finish line, where a jubilant Terry Bradshaw stood above the track waving the green flag. The cars thundered down the front stretch, the pitch of their engines rising in a deafening crescendo, and poured into the first turn with 250,000 voices urging them on. I heard myself cheering too.
Right from the start it was clear that this race would be one for the ages. The field flashed around the entire two-and-a-half-mile tri-oval every 48 seconds, and by the 26th lap, when Dale Earnhardt powered briefly to the front of the pack, the lead had already changed six times. By the 57th lap the lead had changed 12 times, and Earnhardt was back in 20th place. By the 95th lap the lead had changed 20 times.
The cars were battling a tremendous headwind on the back straightaway, and the Dodge cars seemed to be faring better than most; Dodges led 18 of the first 19 laps. Bill Elliot, the pole sitter, started to fall out of contention early, but the Dodges of Sterling Marlin and Ward Burton continued to dominate, Marlin holding the lead for 40 laps, Burton for 53.
On the 99th lap my brother Michael moved into tenth place, and by the 171st lap he had fought his way to the front. On lap 173, however, disaster struck.
The Big One happened during a commercial break. When the television audience rejoined the broadcast we were showing replays of the colossal accident, which was triggered when Robby Gordon nudged the back of Ward Burton’s car on the back straightaway, sending it drifting up the track toward the wall. Tony Stewart tried, unsuccessfully, to get out of Burton’s way, but his #20 Pontiac started to spin, and, as the air got under it, the car suddenly sailed skyward, twisting and flipping in midair for what seemed like an eternity, then tumbled back into the torrent of oncoming traffic, pieces flying and flames blossoming, as other drivers careened and collided in a futile effort to avoid making contact with it.
When the smoke cleared, Stewart’s car was virtually unrecognizable, and 17 others were in ruins. Miraculously Stewart walked to the ambulance under his own power, and nobody else was seriously injured either, but the pileup left even NASCAR veterans shaking their heads in amazement.
The race was red-flagged while the track was cleared. Since the running order was frozen, cars that were still drivable slipped into the pits to survey the damage. Then, when there were 22 laps left to go, the race was officially restarted—with my brother at the front of the pack! Michael was now racing toe-to-toe with Dale Earnhardt (his owner), Dale Jr. (his teammate), and Sterling Marlin, whose #40 Dodge Intrepid still seemed to be the fastest car on the track.
Thinking aloud, I spoke to my brother from the broadcast booth. “Mikey,” I said, “that’s two Earnhardts up there. I think you’re odd man out, buddy.” My concern escalated on lap 182, when it looked like Earnhardt was trying to pass Michael to take the lead. “Michael’s in a bind,” I said to the television audience. “If he lets Earnhardt by, I’m gonna kick his butt, and if he don’t let Earnhardt by, Earnhardt’s going to kick his butt. So he’s in trouble!”
As the final laps unwound, however, it gradually dawned on me that Earnhardt was scripting the race—and he wanted one of his cars to win. Michael and Dale Jr. were running first and second, and Earnhardt was running interference behind them, blocking every effort by Marlin and the other pursuers to reach the front.
Since a bump from behind can make a car lose traction momentarily, causing it to slide up the track in a turn, Marlin bumped Earnhardt several times as the finish line approached, but the maneuver didn’t work. “Sterling has beat the front off that old Dodge trying to get by Dale,” I observed. But Earnhardt, wily and stubborn as ever, held his line in the turns and wouldn’t let Marlin by.
The victory that our family had dreamed about was within Michael’s grasp, and I could hardly believe it. The tension became unbearable. “I can’t watch,” I said. “This is what we’ve all prayed for.”
My partners in the broadcast booth fell silent, and I found myself talking to my brother as though I were in the car beside him.
Michael, you’re in the best place you’ve ever been. Hold’er there.
Just don’t get overconfident, Mikey.
Seven laps to go in the biggest race in the world!
My poor momma, she’s gonna be havin’ a fit!
C’mon, buddy. One to go!
Keep it low, Mikey. Keep it low. Don’t let ’em under ya. Take that back straightaway wide, buddy. Get all over the place! Don’t let ’em run up on ya! C’mon man! Watch that mirror, watch ’im! He’s going to make a run inside. Block him! Block him! Attaboy! You got ’im, Mikey! You got ’im!
And that’s when it happened, right there in the final turn of the final lap. Sterling Marlin finally got his nose under Earnhardt, but as he did, their cars grazed. Earnhardt’s car slipped sideways, dropping momentarily toward the apron, then suddenly careened up the 31-degree turn and into the concrete retaining wall. A moment later Michael took the checkered flag, flashing across the finish line a scant 0.124 seconds ahead of Dale Jr.
I was overcome with emotion, almost too choked to speak. I was thrilled by my brother’s victory, but beneath my elation I could feel a nagging sense of dread. Those around me didn’t seem too worried about Dale. He was Dale Earnhardt, after all, an indestructible figure driving the safest race car in the world. To most people who’d seen it, Earnhardt’s wreck hadn’t looked that bad, but I knew better. The fans were leaving the stands, and the television production people were preparing to wrap up the broadcast. “I hope Dale’s okay,” I said to the television audience. “I guess he’s all right, isn’t he?”
The cameras went to Michael in Victory Circle, then came back to me for reaction to my brother’s win. “As proud as I am of Michael, and as excited as I am for him,” I said, “I’m still prayin’ for Dale. They’re still workin’ on him.”
In the final seconds of the broadcast, my partners and I reviewed a slow-motion video of Dale’s crash. By now it was clear that Dale was seriously injured—he’d been loaded into an ambulance and rushed to the hospital—but we still had no details about his condition. I watched the replay of the accident with dismay. Dale had hit the wall head-on at more than 160 miles per hour. “Those kinda licks are the worst kind,” I said. “They’re sudden. That’s the kind of crash that hurts you. That sudden stop, that’s a driver’s worst nightmare.”
After the broadcast ended, I turned to Big Andy, the sheriff’s deputy assigned to escort me to Victory Circle for the celebration. I’d known Big Andy for years—he was a fixture at Daytona—and I knew that his wife worked as a nurse in the emergency room at Halifax Hospital. Andy was white as a ghost, and there were tears running down his face.
“We’ve got to go to the hospital right now,” Andy said. “I just got off the phone with Maryann. Dale isn’t going to make it.”
Andy’s news stunned me. I stood there for a moment, my mind reeling. Dale Earnhardt was not going to make it? Dale was dying? The very thought was almost incomprehensible, its ramifications unthinkable. Michael’s victory and my new career suddenly seemed inconsequential by comparison. Dale was dying? In the blink of an eye the world had changed, and we were completely unprepared for it.
My mind was racing as I followed Big Andy down the stairs. If Dale Earnhardt was dying, then race day in America had just been altered forever, not just for Dale’s family and friends, but for everyone who had ever come to the track or watched a Sunday race on television. If Dale was dying, then everything had changed.
Sundays would never be the same.
© 2012 Darrell Waltrip