Dale Earnhardt: The Tragedy That Could Have Never Been


If you are a racing fan, you know exactly what this tragedy is. There is actually a good chance that you know what it is, even if you aren’t a racing fan. Yet, if you don’t know what the tragedy is, here is how it goes. It’s the Daytona 500 (The Super-bowl of NASCAR, the professional league for stock-car racing) and it’s the final lap. Dale Earnhardt Sr. and his racing team are feeling good as drives Michael Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Jr, and Dale Earnhardt Sr. fill out the Top 3. Everything is going well, until Turn 4. Coming off of Turn 4 Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s care got loose and would turn inside, soon clipping the #2 of Rusty Wallace. Earnhardt Sr would then hit Ken Schrader sending both men into the wall. However, Earnhardt Sr would connect head first into the wall and while Schrader would walk away unharmed (physically), Earnhardt Sr wouldn’t walk away with his life.

It would come to a shock to racing fans around the world, especially Earnhardt Sr fans who had seen their icon go through many other crashes that looked much worse. However, the injury toll in this crash would be far worse than imaginable. The thing that shocks people the most is probably what took so long to confirm anything surrounding the crash or Dale’s health. It would be much later before anything came out and the race actually had to go off the air without anything confirmed. Mike Joy, one of 3 broadcasters for the race, had this to say when talking to Foxsports about his train of thought as they were getting ready to go off the air “I had to put together a summation of this and I’m thinking of all the possibilities, on the one hand, at the one extreme, there was the possibility that Dale could have been seriously injured. At the other extreme was the possibility that he had a superficial wound that bled profusely and he was merely unconscious. That and everything in between. So what I tried to do was to convey the potential gravity of the situation while not alarming anybody to thinks that we did not know to be fact. That’s a very fine line, knowing all these drivers have family watching and people very close to them that you don’t want to alarm unnecessarily.” As you can see, it was a very stressful and chaotic last minutes of the broadcast.

The 3 broadcasters (Mike Joy, Darrell Waltrip, and Larry McReynolds) would see something that could almost immediately confirm that the worst had happened. The ambulance that carried Earnhardt Sr didn’t stop at the infield care center; instead it went to the Halifax Medical Center. It only goes to the Medical Center for severe injuries. Another key sign to McReynolds was how slow the ambulance went. McReynolds said when speaking to Foxsports, “When I didn’t see any sense of urgency when that ambulance left that wreck and it never stopped at the infield care center, I knew right then it was not good. I just had that gut feeling,” Sadly, it wouldn’t be long until his feeling was confirmed. However, due to a red flag earlier in the race, the broadcast would end at 5pm EST. Earnhardt Sr.’s death was announced at 5:16pm EST at the Halifax Medical Center. NASCAR wouldn’t announce the death until roughly 7pm EST.

Now to live up to the title, how could this have been avoided? It sadly comes down to Earnhardt Sr. wanting to be comfortable, to a degree. Earnhardt Sr. had the bolts loosened to increase his comfort, but didn’t stop him from hitting his head and chest area on the steering wheel which gave him blunt force trauma, cited to have killed him on the spot. Now, this is to a degree. The degree he had his belts at was in NASCAR standards (at the time) and was legal. It did, however, go against the manufacturer installation method. If anything, NASCAR is to be blamed here, considering the lack of tightness didn’t break any standards.

Yet, with every tragedy there is an upside; similar to after the rain comes a rainbow. The “rainbow” here is the multiple safety advancements made soon after his death. At the time of his death, NASCAR didn’t require drivers to use the HANS device (a device used to strap a racer’s helmet to the car seat, acting as a head restraint and holding the head in place). It actually wasn’t until another death in the 2001 season (of a different racing company) that NASCAR forced drivers to use it, however Earnhardt Sr.’s death had a huge part in the decision. NASCAR also made a new wall barrier called the SAFER Barrier, which added foam and movement to absorb energy and take away pain from drivers after a crash into barriers. NASCAR, in the final major advancement, made the new “Car of Tomorrow”. When being designed, it Incorporated, all results of the research done surrounding Earnhardt Sr.’s death. It is the safest car ever developed.

It’s sad to think a few minor things could have saved a life. The use of the HANS device, the tightening of the belts, a different helmet, etc.  It could even go down to Earnhardt Sr. not trying to save the car and letting it go into the grass. But at the end of the day, it isn’t what could have happened. It’s to never let it happen again. That was NASCAR’s goal and I truly believe it has been accomplished, considering this was the last death in NASCAR history.


Image Credit: Allen Kee/WireImage

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  1. The answer is it was never going to be avoided. Earnhardt could have had the HANS collar etc. and they were not going to save him – it’s simple reality that all the safety in the world will never be foolproof. People ignore the near-hits (injuries to Michael Annett, Eric McClure, Sterling Marlin’s near-fatal hit in 2002, to name three) with the HANS and other safety changes since Earnhardt’s death.

    Unlike other fans I put this behind right away – it’s what life, especially in such high-stress environments like racing, requires – and the morbid refusal to let go by so many fans was embarrassing and immature then and even more embarrassing and immature seen today. It was a tragedy, no question, but too many people did the wrong thing in response.

  2. If NASCAR would’ve made all This safer after losing Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin the year before, then Dale would’ve survived! But it took the loss of NASCAR’s BIGGEST star to do anything!!! Shame on NASCAR!!!

    1. NASCAR wouldn’t require the HANS device (which would have saved his life because this article doesn’t mention the exact cause of death, a basilar skull fracture, or internal decapitation) because Dale refused to have any of it and let NASCAR know that. It was well known that the device had been invented and would prevent ones head and neck from snapping forward (what ultimately killed him) and was required in other racing series. NASCAR and even Dale knew about the HANS but Dale said no way and NASCAR really listened to what Dale had to say.

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