Today begins qualifying for the 2011 Daytona 500. But as I wait for the qualifying session to begin, I am watching “The Day” on Speed TV. It first aired on Friday, but I had Tivoed it because I was out celebrating Valentine’s Day with my mom and my fellas. I was going to wait until Saturday to watch it because I was very tired, but I just could not wait. I had heard this was going to be a powerful story about that day back in 2011. I didn’t follow NASCAR back then as much as I do today. I knew of NASCAR and I usually watched the Daytona 500 on occasion. I remember watching Dale win his only Daytona 500. I remembering just crying my eyes out at the respect everyone in the garage gave him that day on pit row. I knew this story was going to be tough to watch.
I cannot recall what I was doing that day. Like I said, I didn’t follow the sport back then as I do today. But I do remember watching my local news coverage about the death of Dale Earnhardt. I immediately called Postman (at the time we had just started dating) to tell him. I then spent the next few days trying to wrap my head around the whole thing. I was looking for any kind of news coverage on the story. I wanted to know everything I could. Media coverage wasn’t like it is today–no Facebook, no Twitter, etc. But as with anything, I continued on with my life. It wasn’t until I went to Las Vegas for my honeymoon in June of 2001 did I realize how much fans were still paying tribute. We stayed at the Sahara which happens to be the home of NASCAR Cafe. Inside the gift shop adjacent to the restaurant was a #3 car on display. Surrounding the car was cards, signs, flowers, etc. in tribute to Dale. It was surreal. I think it was at that moment I fell in love with NASCAR.
“The Day” was very powerful. I found myself emotionally drawn to the story. It was the first, I can recall, seeing Ken Schader discussing that day. Even now you still see how much that day has affected him emotionally. Everything about what we know about NASCAR changed that day. The person I feel for most is Michael Waltrip. Michael Waltrip up until that day had not won a race. He started 462 races and never finished first. Dale Earnhardt took a chance on him and hired him to drive #15 for DEI. But what should have been the most important day of his racing career turned into one of his worse. He should have been celebrating his victory but inside was grieving for loss of his owner and friend. Michael Waltrip has put his story about that day into the book, “In the Blink of an Eye” which was just released.
As many of you know I am not a Dale Jr. fan. But as someone who follows the sport I feel I can be objective when it comes to this post. I would not want to walk in Dale Jr.’s footsteps. NASCAR may have lost one of the best drivers of all time, but bottom line Dale Jr. lost his father. I can’t even begin to understand what it is like to lose a parent. But Dale lost his father with the nation watching. He has been dealing with the loss since then. Do I think it has affected his success in NASCAR? I can’t answer that. I am sure in his quiet moments he ponders this question. When he made the decision to leave DEI, the company his father created, it probably was one of the hardest decisions of his life.
On Friday, February 18, it will mark 1o years since Dale Earnhardt’s death. It will be marked on Sunday with a silent lap on Lap 3 of the race. A #3 will also be painted in the grass at Daytona the night before the race. All of these things will be to honor not only the racer, but the man known as the “The Indimidator”.
Note from qualifying…it looks like a HMS front row for the Daytona 500. How appropriate that Dale’s son and friend & race rival Jeff Gordon, will be leading the pack as the green flag flies on Sunday.