NASCAR lost one of its true icons with the fatal accident of Dale Earnhardt at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Twenty years later, “The Intimidator” still casts a big shadow on the sport.
He remains a popular figure, a link to the “good, old days” and someone who connected with the traditional NASCAR fans in a way that none of the current stars have been able to.
Black and Blue
Another Earnhardt nickname was “The Man in Black,” but it was his blue-collar roots that helped many fans identify with him.
While most of the younger drivers on the NASCAR circuit have “paid their dues” by coming up racing go karts or quarter-midgets, Earnhardt got a relatively late start behind the wheel at age 19. His upbringing was on the mechanical side, helping his father Ralph in the shop and in the pits.
Earnhardt’s first race car was a pink 1956 Ford Victoria that he raced at Concord Motor Speedway and other dirt tracks. His father built the engine on the No. K-2 car. Unfortunately, his father died in 1973 when Dale’s racing career was just taking off.
Unlike the driver development plans today, Earnhardt worked jobs in the cotton mill and as a mechanic to pay the bills in those early years. When he made a Cup Series debut in 1975, it wasn’t in top-tier equipment. Instead, it was in the No. 8 Dodge of independent racer Ed Negre.
Earnhardt made seven more starts in the Cup Series before getting his big break with California businessman Rod Osterlund’s new team in November 1978 at Atlanta. He finished fourth in the No. 2 Chevrolet in a race won by Donnie Allison.
The following season, Earnhardt won his first race, the Southeastern 500 at Bristol, and claimed rookie of the year honors.
In 1980, he won the first of his seven championships. Driving for Osterlund, he beat another hard-charger in Cale Yarborough for the series title.
Osterlund sold the team in 1981 to J.D. Stacy and the driver and new car owner clashed. Earnhardt soon left with new sponsor Wrangler going with him to Richard Childress’ team in 1981 and to the more established Bud Moore team the next two seasons.
Earnhardt enjoyed some success with the veteran car owner Moore, winning three races in the No. 15 Ford. However, his driving style was hard on the equipment with 13 DNFs in 1983 — 11 of them due to mechanical failures.
He returned to Childress, who had assembled a powerhouse crew in 1984, and as they say the rest is history. Earnhardt built his reputation through the Wrangler marketing campaign as “One Tough Customer” and he won back-to-back series championships in 1986-87.
The 1987 season was the greatest of his career, producing 11 wins in 29 races — including sweeps at the short tracks of Bristol and Richmond. He also swept Darlington that season. He led an incredible 3,357 out of a possible 9,373 laps.
Furthermore, he led the standings from the second race of the year at Rockingham to the end of the season, winning by nearly 500 points over runner-up Bill Elliott.
GM Goodwrench became the sponsor of the No. 3 Chevrolet in 1988, changing the car’s primary color to the one Earnhardt became most associated with — black.
He won championships in four of five seasons from 1990-94 and furthered his reputation as “The Intimidator,” a racer who did whatever it took to win.
That played out in the two most famous finishes in Bristol Motor Speedway history. First was the last-turn wreck of Terry Labonte in 1995, when Labonte drove his crumpled car with smoke spewing out into victory lane. Four years later, Earnhardt spun out Labonte coming off turn 2 and drove on to the win, uttering the famous lines of, “I didn’t mean to wreck him. I just meant to rattle his cage.”
Even Earnhardt’s final Cup win at Talladega was the stuff of legend, going from 17th place to first over the final four laps.
The Earnhardt image off the track often showed him hunting or fishing, or doing work on his farm.
It’s something those from an older generation identified with much more than today’s racers, who have grown up more with technology and video games.
Although he often lamented the fact he was a high-school dropout, Earnhardt and his wife Teresa proved to be shrewd businesspeople, building an empire that included their own race team and the Sports Image company — which made huge profits off apparel and other merchandise.
He was forward-thinking in this area and the racers today still profit from the business model of the Earnhardts. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a big star in NASCAR before he even debuted in the Cup Series, thanks to his father’s vision and DEI providing the equipment he drove to consecutive Busch Series championships.
A decade after his death, Dale Earnhardt was still among the top drivers in terms of merchandise sold.
Legacy of Safety
One of auto racing’s all-time greatest champions, Earnhardt has a legacy not limited to winning 76 races and seven championships. It’s how there hasn’t been a single fatality in NASCAR since his death.
While NASCAR was working on making the sport safer in 2001, the death of its biggest star ramped up the process. The HANS device, SAFER walls, design of racing seats and moving the seat closer to the center of the car have all been great innovations. Most importantly, it has allowed so many racers to walk away from crashes that could have been career-ending or fatal years earlier.
There have been many hard crashes in the years since, such as Michael McDowell’s great impact on a qualifying run at Texas or Jeff Gordon crashing head-on into the wall at Pocono at the end of a straightaway at full speed.
Ryan Newman survived a spectacular crash at the end of the 2020 Daytona 500 that most agree would have been fatal 20 years ago.
Current Drivers’ Thoughts
Ryan Blaney, driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford, was asked what he remembered about the 2001 Daytona 500. His father, Dave, fell out of the race early with a blown engine. Ryan Blaney was seven years old at the time.
“I wish I could remember more of it. I was just too young to really have a good memory of it,” Blaney said. “Watching that wreck as I got older and understanding what happened — as a kid when you see that wreck you don’t really understand what happened when you see it replayed on TV. But as you get older, you realize how terrible it was and how detrimental to the Earnhardt family and the sport of NASCAR it was.”
Tyler Reddick drives the No. 8 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing, where the trophies and museum are constant reminders of Earnhardt’s success.
“Dale left a void in the sport that hasn’t been replaced. He was one of a kind,” Reddick said. ”Through my time at RCR and NASCAR, I’ve gotten to know a lot of people that worked with him, knew him, called him a father or a friend. To hear the different stories about Dale from these different people is really eye-opening. It will be 20 years and it was a huge loss for our entire sport.”
Newman, driver of the No. 6 Roush Fenway Ford, sees the safety advancements as a big part of the Earnhardt legacy, but most remembers him as a racing hero.
“People remember Dale Earnhardt for the way that he raced and the way that he lived, which go hand-in-hand,” Newman said. “I didn’t know Dale Earnhardt as a farmer. I didn’t know Dale Earnhardt as a hunter. There are stories out there, but I knew him as a racer. I knew him as the guy that drove the black 3 car and if he didn’t win it outright, he’d knock somebody out of the way to get it done and stood in victory lane and smiled about it.
“A lot of people loved that and a lot of people hated that. That’s the legacy that I will always remember him by.”