Still cant believe its been 15 years since that day Earnhardt died on the last lap, in the last turn with his son and partner directly infront - I remember that evening like it was yesterday, I didnt know wtf was going on, and as the broadcast ended, there was that slow, ever so slow moving ambulance driving off to hospital
Thinking back on how I got started watching NASCAR to begin with I could say since I was just a kid watching the 500 on cbs, not really understanding it but I loved to watch because hey - the crashes and the carnage, youre a kid thats what you like you know. In 1998, i was 14 and I watched the Daytona 500, it was the first time I say and watched a race from start to end with the intention to understand what the sport was about, that year theres was this guy in the black 3 and he won, and people went crazy, I remember being confused as to why people cared so much, the announcers, the fans, and when Earnhardt went down the pits that huge line of pit crews, team owners, officials, everyone lined up to congratulate and show respect to this driver in the black 3. That was the moment I became a fan of Dale Earnhardt, that was the moment I fell in love with NASCAR
After that I went digging into the history and realized how big the 500 was, and how many time he had a chance to win, but didnt - thats when I realized I was watched one of the biggest moments in NASCAR history, something that will be replayed 50 years from now along side "the fight" or pettys 200th and final win, or the 92 finalie
As you would imagine, I spent every sunday going forward rooting for the 3, the rest of the 1998 season was tough for Earnhardt, so was 99 infact, critics went all about him being done, over the hill, on the back nine, whatever you wanna call it. 2000 was a really good comeback, he finished 2nd in the points to bobby labonte, and he was poised to have 2001 be his best year ever, recently coming out of back surgery he was also felling the best hes been in years.
Coming into speedweeks in 2001 Earnhardt was like a kid almost, fully reinvigorated, running DEI with his son in it, new teammate in michael waltrip for rcr, it was going to be great - the race started and had its share of action, and incidents, near the end Earnhardt seemed like he was driving different, when I say different I mean defensive, not aggo like most people would assume, on the last lap he was 3rd, had his son infront, micheal waltrip leading, earnhardt was making his car wide on the backstraight, breaking the draft - making them lose momentum, going into turn 3 there was the nose of sterling marlin, as earnhardt came down they touched, earnhardt went left, the right - as he went right he hit ken schrader, which hooked his car to the right and forced it into the wall headon, and that was it - it was instant.
He was a legend, not just for his 7 championships and transcendence but what happend afterwards regarding safety measures, not just for NASCAR but for motorsports as a whole, sure things like hans devices were around but never taken seriously enough, only a few drivers used it, a hans or head and neck support device is basically a collar that connects to the helmet, what it does it it keeps the head from jerking forward in a head on crash, which protects the head, and neck because it elimates that motion, because earnhardt wasnt wearing one, his head hit the steering wheel, with enough force to bend it a few inches
Theres also the soft wall, which is basically styrofoam springs, with a aluminum cover, the styrofoam sits against the original concrete wall, and is covered by the aluminum, when a car it it, the styro gives way and dissipates the energy, which makes it harder to find the driver
There are several other features that were around and then enforced, and I feel like, yes his legacy will always be about dominance on track, his championships, but also what motorsports have been able to learn from it, to make it safer for all