Memories of Earnhardt seared forever

Updated: February 18, 2011, 10:08 AM ET
ESPN.com staff

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- We all remember where we were when the second plane hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and we realized this was no accident.

For those of us old enough, the moment we learned President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated remains as clear today, more than 47 years later, as if it were yesterday.

And for the most senior of us, the voice on the radio, announcing that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, remains clarion.

What all of us have in common, as NASCAR enthusiasts, are our distinct memories of where we were, what we were doing and what we thought just before and after 5 p.m. ET on Sunday, Feb. 18, 2001.

Those were the moments we realized first that Dale Earnhardt had been gravely injured and then that he was dead.

Here are recollections from some of our staff at ESPN.com.

We invite you to share your remembrance of where you were, what you were doing, and what you thought that black afternoon and evening.

Don't be shy in recounting your emotions. Then-NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. was so overcome he could issue only a one-sentence statement that resounds to this day:

"NASCAR has lost its greatest driver ever."

Post your memories and comments with us.

Terry Blount, ESPN.com senior writer

Blount

I was sitting in the press box, watching the final laps unfold, and I remember thinking, "This will be one heck of a story no matter what happens."

 

It never crossed my mind that the race could end in tragedy. I just thought of all these great column angles -- Michael Waltrip could win his first race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. could win the Daytona 500 or Dale Sr. could come back and beat both of them, showing his drivers how it's done.

 

I was working for the Houston Chronicle, and I called our editing desk with a couple of laps left to tell the editors to give me more space -- writers do that a lot -- because this was going to be a great story.

 

When Dale crashed, I just thought, "Well, he'll be mad and happy at the same time when he gets to Victory Lane. But he'll probably have some great quotes about crashing while his guys finished 1-2."

 

I had seen Dale crash a dozen times that looked far worse than that one did. It was no big deal. Not at first. But as the minutes passed, we all knew it was bad.

 

I had seen people die in racing accidents at other events. Long before the officials tell you, you get this sinking feeling in your gut. It's horrible because you still have a job to do, a job that has changed 180 degrees from what you planned.

 

I got a call from my son, Luke, who was 14 at the time and a big Dale Earnhardt fan. I'll never forget it. He never tried to call me right after a race because he knew how busy I was when the race ended.

 

But he wanted to know. He said, "I know you're busy, Dad, but is Dale OK?"

 

I tried to answer him, and the words wouldn't come out for a few seconds. I said: "They haven't told us yet, but I don't think so, Luke. I think he's gone."

He just said, "I'm sorry, Dad. I just can't believe it."

Joe Breeze, ESPN.com motorsports editor

Breeze

My wife, Christina, and I were about a mile from home when I got the call. We were on the road, and a friend knew I'd missed the race. I was in the passenger seat. My cell phone rang.

"Did you hear the news?"

"No … what?"

"Earnhardt -- he's dead."

Those words still haunt me.

Seven weeks earlier, at Christmas, a family member had given me a black T-shirt with the famed No. 3 bursting out the front. That shirt remains in my dresser, 10 years later, unworn and tags intact.

K. Lee Davis, ESPN.com motorsports editor

Davis

I was working at another website in 2001, running the news desk for what was then called SportsLine.com in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The two big racing fans in the office, myself and Brian De Los Santos -- who was on NASCAR duty for AOL Sports because SportsLine did sports for that website in those days -- watched the race unfold and prepared plans for postrace.

Then the news desk phone rang, and I answered it. A former staffer who was at Halifax Hospital, where Dale Earnhardt had been taken after the crash, was on the other end, and his simple words were, "He's dead."

"Who's dead?" I asked.

"Earnhardt," he replied. "I have to go."

So I hung up the phone, looked over at my friend and colleague, the biggest Earnhardt fan I knew, and told him the news.

We sat together in stunned silence for about a minute, and then I stood up and made the announcement to the desk.

"Dale Earnhardt's dead. We have a lot of work to do. Let's get on top of it."

And we all worked late into the night.

Ed Hinton, ESPN.com senior writer

Hinton

In the corner of my left eye, as I watched Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. come to the finish line, I saw some cars spinning up in Turn 4.

I was in the press box. My initial thought was, "Oh, that's Earnhardt and Rusty [Wallace] or whoever, and in a minute they'll be out arguing and throwing water bottles at each other."

I watched the replay on the monitors. Earnhardt's crash didn't look bad at first. I went on preparing to write about the race until I heard the editor of a magazine, directing her photographers by radio, tell them, "They're cutting him out of the car."

I knew then something was terribly wrong. Earnhardt's car was not damaged in a manner that would require cutting it open. It must have to do with his condition.

Then I watched the replays and realized Earnhardt had hit at what engineers called "the 1 o'clock angle" in research I'd done for a series of stories on basilar skull fractures in racing that had run the week before.

That angle was potentially deadly, because if a driver's head lurched to the right front on impact, it would bypass the steering wheel that could catch his head and save his life.

It was at that point, probably less than half an hour after the wreck, that I realized Earnhardt was dead.

Mike Massaro, ESPN NASCAR reporter

Massaro

We had just completed our final prerace live shot when my camera man, Ken Bumgarner, said something that haunts me today: "I think we're going to see something dramatic this afternoon."

"Dramatic" falls short of describing what would unfold in the 2001 Daytona 500. It was my first race as an ESPN reporter, and to this day, it's the most memorable.

Personally, this event marked an opportunity, a transition from a career pieced together by freelance radio and television work to the job security and broad reach of the Worldwide Leader. It was that appeal that attracted me, despite knowing the obstacles.

A new television contract signed before the 2001 season barred ESPN's motorsports show "RPM 2Night" from doing interviews inside the speedway walls. Consequently, we conducted business, doing interviews, at such places as the Daytona Marina and a strip mall on International Speedway Boulevard. It wasn't ideal, but it worked.

Unlike the majority of media covering the race, our crew watched from a satellite truck parked across the street. The plan was to send a producer inside to schedule an interview with the winner later -- outside the track.

As the laps dwindled, I elected to walk in myself. Victory Lane for the Daytona 500 is electric, and I wanted to be there. Michael Waltrip was about to win his first career race and surely, I thought, his excitement would be thrilling to see.

The emotions, though, weren't of excitement, but of confusion. The hat dance concluded and the trophy was presented, but Michael's smile appeared forced. Something was wrong, and everybody knew it. We just didn't know, at least for certain, exactly what.

For me, the atmosphere was too familiar. The cryptic conversations were the same I experienced while in Texas when Tony Roper died. People's expressions and body language were similar to what I saw in New Hampshire when Adam Petty was killed. Whispers began. People were saying Dale Earnhardt had died.

 

"It can't be; that's not possible," I thought until I tried to follow up.

I remember trying to call Earnhardt PR rep JR Rhodes. No answer. I saw Dale Earnhardt Inc. executive Steve Hmiel carrying a trophy but hardly a smile. I attempted a conversation with Ray Evernham, who walked and talked to me as if he were in a trance. The unbelievable was all but confirmed.

It was decision time, abide by the sanctions and try to cover this story from the strip mall or throw caution to the wind. I was the only ESPN TV reporter there. The responsibility was clear, and the decision was easy. Our microphone was front and center when Mike Helton confirmed, "We lost Dale Earnhardt."

Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine senior writer

McGee

In 2001, I was producing the nightly studio show "Totally NASCAR" on FSN. The previous five years, I had been on the road as a field producer with ESPN's "RPM 2Night." Over that time, I had gotten to know Dale Earnhardt, although it was a relationship primarily built around him picking on me and calling me "hey boy."

On the Friday prior to the Daytona 500, the fourth ever edition of "Totally NASCAR," "The Intimidator" agreed to come on the show. I was in Charlotte, having left Daytona and gone back to North Carolina to oversee production from the control room. Earnhardt's interview was with host Steve Byrnes on a set overlooking Daytona's Victory Lane. When we were done taping the segment, Dale asked our floor director, "Where's producer boy at?" They told him which camera to look into, so he did, pointing directly at me and saying, "All right, producer boy, good luck getting your show going. Don't f--- it up!" The he smiled, got up and left.

Two days later, I was watching the Daytona 500 at home, logging it against the clock as I prepped for Monday's Daytona 500 recap show. Like the rest of the world, I didn't think much of the wreck on the final lap -- I was too caught up in Michael Waltrip's win. But it wasn't more than 10 minutes later when I got the call from my bosses at Fox. They had watched the race from a skybox adjacent to NASCAR race control, and as Mike Helton bolted from the tower, he grabbed Fox Sports chairman David Hill and said simply, "It's pretty bad. I'm headed to the hospital."

My marching orders were to report to our Charlotte production offices and start writing the script for Dale Earnhardt's obituary that might or might not air that night. When I arrived at the office 20 minutes later, my friends and colleagues, most of whom had covered the sport for decades, were crying. It was definitely going to air.

The piece led FSN's "National Sports Report" at 11 p.m. Meanwhile, "SportsCenter" led with a biography about Earnhardt that I had produced for "RPM 2Night" one year earlier. It was truly surreal to watch the two stories roll simultaneously on competing networks. They weren't the same piece, but they were close.

That night, my brother and I drove up to Dale Earnhardt Inc. in Mooresville, N.C. It was after midnight, and there were already hundreds of people lining the road, lighting candles and piling flowers and Earnhardt memorabilia along the fence.

My cell phone rang again. It was Hill. "What's your plan for tomorrow, kid?"

I told him that I honestly had no idea where to go from there.

"Don't worry about that," he said. "I don't think anyone else does either."

David Newton, ESPN.com NASCAR writer

Newton

I remember the flame.

It started with one, then another and then another. Slowly it turned into a sea of candlelight as the crowd gathered near the black iron fence on a remote portion of Highway 3 in Mooresville, N.C.

Dale Earnhardt had been pronounced dead less than 90 minutes before when I arrived in front of Dale Earnhardt Inc. that gloomy night 10 years ago. Although I was covering the NFL's Carolina Panthers at the time, I didn't need an editor to tell me this was where I should be.

My interaction with Earnhardt didn't go beyond half a dozen interviews at Charlotte Motor Speedway, including one that lasted all of 15 seconds as he slammed the door to his black pickup truck for a quick getaway from the 2000 All-Star Race, but I knew enough to understand he was a man of the people.

That never was more evident than this night that turned into a week of watching a few candles turn into a 100-yard long memorial of pictures, poems, letters, balloons, flowers, T-shirts -- anything that reminded people of their hero -- along the fence.

At one point, there were 18 television satellite trucks for live feeds and cars with license tags from 12 states. Many fans were on their way home from Sunday's race. Many, such as Kenneth Holbert of Knoxville, Tenn., took a day off from work and drove 300 miles to pay his respects.

There were businessmen and farmers. Mothers and children. Blacks and whites. Earnhardt fans and Bill Elliott fans.

Fifty yards away, at the entrance to DEI, was a sign that read, "Respectfully closed today except for employees."

Funny the things that you remember. My most vivid memory was of Dale Earnhardt Jr. driving away in a black Monte Carlo on his way to his house on the other side of the street. I followed as far as beefed up security allowed.

I also remember talking to H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, then the president of CMS, about the "somber" atmosphere he witnessed inside DEI. I remember talking to a security guard who said, "It ain't good in there."

I remember talking to 10-year-old Blake Leaphart of Lexington, S.C., who spent the hours before the fatal accident in Turn 4 at Daytona International Speedway painting the walls of his room red and putting black spreads on his bed in honor of his favorite driver.

I remember 18-year-old Stephen Parris, who used to deliver pizzas to Earnhardt Jr.

"Racing's not going to be the same without him," he said. "A sad day. Just a sad day."

But mostly I remember the flame that turned into a sea of candlelight in memory of the light that was taken from the NASCAR world.

Marty Smith, ESPN NASCAR Insider and ESPN.com NASCAR writer

Smith

I was at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 18, 2001, working as a writer and reporter for NASCAR.com. I'd been around for more than two seasons at the time, but the 2001 Daytona 500 was the first for a new venture by Turner Sports, which had purchased the brand rights to the NASCAR.com domain name as part of the sport's network television package.

It was a huge day for us all, because the whole world watches the Daytona 500. As the race progressed into what seemed a fairy-tale story, we divvied up responsibilites. Mine was to go get Rusty Wallace, who was set to have another close-but-no-soup finish in the 500. As the cars came to the white flag, I ran out to pit lane, presuming Wallace would finish among the top five finishers.

That's where I was standing when Dale Earnhardt hit the Turn 4 wall.

Unlike some of my colleagues, my recollection of the day is spotty. It comes in waves. I remember walking out to Wallace's position to get his thoughts on the race, and he stopped me before I could ask a question. He told me to check on Dale. I tried to ask another question. He again told me to get down toward Turn 4 and check on Dale.

This was Rusty Wallace. I was 24 years old. I wasn't inclined to say no. So off I went … until I was stopped and told to go no further.

I ran back to the old Benny Kahn media center there at DIS, where the next thing I remember is my coworker Dave Rodman. Dave's wife worked in the medical field and had told him it was bad. I remember sitting down, and he turned to face me. His eyes were welled up, full of tears. And he just melted. He put his head on my shoulder and sobbed. I did, too. It was an impossible thought.

Mark Ashenfelter, now one of our news guys at ESPN, was with NASCAR Scene back then. He told me a story last month that he approached me to ask what I knew, and that he, too, thought it was really bad. He said he thought Dale might have died. I don't recall this, but he said my face welled with such anger and sorrow that he wasn't sure I wasn't about to deck him for saying it. I remember my phone ringing a lot. Hank Parker Jr. called me. He raced in the Busch Series back then. So did Jimmie Johnson. He called me, too.

I remember walking into the garage area, and crew members and folks who had been in the industry forever were walking around the garage in a daze, uncertain what to do, many sobbing uncontrollably. The next thing I remember is Mike Helton walking into the media center to confirm the news. At that moment, he said the words that are forever etched in our minds:

"After the accident in Turn 4 of the Daytona 500, we've lost Dale Earnhardt."