It’s somewhat of an odd coincidence that a day after the end of the 2020 Daytona 500, just a few hours actually, we paused to remember the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr.
The seven-time champion died on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. It was a day 19 years ago when NASCAR and indeed the entire world, held its breath and waited to hear news from a hospital across the street from the speedway.
It happened again Monday evening.
Just a straightway length away from where Earnhardt lost his life on that terrible February day, Ryan Newman’s Ford Mustang, what was left of it, came to rest Monday night. In the press box, where I watched it all explode in front of me, that same awful feeling from 19 years ago swept over me. After watching crews carefully right the mangled lump of metal that only a few minutes before had been hundreds of thousands of dollars of the most advanced stock car on the planet, Newman was loaded into an ambulance and whisked away to the same hospital where 19 years ago…
Only this time it didn’t happen again.
After a couple of hours of waiting, long after the stands had emptied and the track cleaned off, we got the news.
All I heard was: He is alive.
And I could breathe again. And I, like all of us in NASCAR, can thank Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Before that horrific day in 2001 we had lost drivers on the track. In fact, it seemed like it happened on a near regular basis. Only a year before we lost three: Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper. NASCAR had started to make advances in the name of safety. After Earnhardt’s death those efforts went into overdrive. Safer barriers were developed, head and neck restraints, full faced helmets became mandatory. And NASCAR hasn’t stopped working on safety to this day. Each successive generation of racecar has had more and more safety features added. The cockpit has become safer; drivers moved away from the doors more rollbars, padding and foam added.
Drivers have been consulted on these changes. Ironically after Newman ended up on his roof at Talladega in 2009, he complained about the lack of roof supports. Not long after NASCAR mandated a roof support that became known as a “Newman Bar.”
That bar most likely contributed to helping save his life Monday night. That combined with all the additional safety measures put in place after Dale Earnhardt’s death have meant that we have not suffered a racing fatality in NASCAR since that February day 19 years ago.
And that includes Monday night.
There have been many gut-wrenching crashes in the last 19 years. Austin Dillon walked away from a violent crash that tore his Chevy in half at Daytona in July of 2015; it came at the same place where Kyle Larson’s car rocketed into the fence at the end of an Xfinity race in 2013. He too walked away, sparing those of us watching those agonizing hours of waiting.
There have been injuries at Daytona, most famously perhaps was Kyle Busch who broke both his legs in an Xfinity race in 2015 after he hit a spot, that ironically had no safer barrier.
Ryan Newman isn’t out of the woods yet. His injures are listed as “serious” but not “life-threatening.” No matter the outcome, or recovery time, every minute of life Newman has is because of Dale Earnhardt Sr. and that awful, terrible day 19 years ago.
So thank you Dale. Because of you drivers like Kyle Larson. Austin Dillon, Kyle Busch, and Ryan Newman have a second chance. The owe it all to you. And those of us who cover the sport, or watch it, can thank you as well. Because at end of a few hours of waiting, we can all get the message that brings so much relief: He is alive.