NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt lost his life 20 years ago today. Earnhardt crashed during the final lap of the Daytona 500 back in 2001. It was the crash heard around the world and broke the hearts of NASCAR fans everywhere.
There was no one in the motor-sporting world bigger than Dale Earnhardt. Even as he got a bit longer-in-the tooth and his son Dale Earnhardt Jr seemed poised for greatness, the driver continued to show why he was the best around. As they say, heroes get remembered but legends never die.
The 2001 Daytona 500 is a day poised to live forever in infamy. Earnhardt’s death was an accident. But it’s an accident that should have been avoidable if the proper safety measures had been installed. Back in those days, NASCAR felt a bit like the Wild West.
Drivers died in wrecks out on the raceway, and it happened often enough to be in the back of a driver’s mind. In the decade prior to Earnhardt’s death, a total of nine drivers passed away due to crashes. Three drivers died alone in 2000 due to injuries similar to what killed Earnhardt.
“Up until that point, when somebody had an accident and it took their life… you just thought, That could happen to anybody, but it’s not going to happen to me,'” Earnhardt Jr. told FOX Sports. “You just went to the next race and ran the next lap.”
Dale Earnhardt and Safety Measures
But sometimes your ticket comes due. Earnhardt Sr. was in the last lap of the 500 when he clipped Sterling Marlin’s car. The motion sent Earnhardt colliding 180 mph into the wall. A few moments later, fellow driver Ken Schrader smashed into Earnhardt’s vehicle as well.
The crash gave Earnhardt several broken ribs and a skull fracture. He likely died almost on impact when his chin hit his steering wheel.
“There was nothing that could have been done for him,” Steve Bohannon, a doctor at Halifax Medical Center, told ESPN.
The outcry was loud and clear. NASCAR had just lost its greatest champion, and it would need to do better to honor Earnhardt’s memory. After the driver’s death, the organization implemented several new safety features for its drivers. Safety became one of the No. 1 concerns in NASCAR.
And so far, it has seemed the extra safety precautions have worked. There’s been some pretty gnarly crashes in the two decades since. But not another driver has died in NASCAR during a race since Earnhardt.