One year after Earnhardt's death
Dale Earnhardt's death changed many lives this past year. It even changed his own.
Earnhardt's lore in the weeks and months after his death spread quicker and farther than it ever did when he was alive. And, though he will always be known as a seven-time Winston Cup champion, he will likely be better known as the man who forced NASCAR to revolutionize its safety initiatives.
Earnhardt's passing affected lives across the country. At the track, it changed the lives of a handful of people.
Winston Cup team owner
Teresa Earnhardt looks small in frame, but she's tremendous in stature.
When she lost her husband to Turn 4 at Daytona International Speedway, she mourned, collected herself and fought for her husband's legacy. One year later, she's still fighting.
"I don't think people always saw how big a role she played in this race team," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said of Dale Earnhardt Inc. "Now everybody will see what we've always known. She's unbelievable."
After losing her husband and father to her little girl, Earnhardt found the strength to fight for her husband's legacy in court. She sought to have her husband's autopsy photos sealed and she won.
"She was awesome through all that," DEI driver Michael Waltrip said. "I don't think any of us could have been that strong. But she was a role model for all of us."
One year after Dale Earnhardt's death, Teresa is still fighting for her husband's legacy. She's left the court room and gone home to North Carolina where she fights to protect the Earnhardt legacy on the track.
"Teresa is the one who's making sure we've got great equipment and great cars," Waltrip said. "She's running that whole thing by herself, and she's determined to make sure Dale's name carries on successfully way after his passing."
Teresa doesn't come to the tracks much and she doesn't talk to the media. But she's as influential in the sport as she's ever been.
"I wish she could be at the tracks sometimes because I know how proud she is whenever we do good," Earnhardt Jr. said.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Winston Cup driver
That evening, after losing his father, Earnhardt Jr. found the courage to step in front of a television camera and show the world he was still strong. The next weekend, he showed up to race, and gave everyone in the NASCAR family a little piece of his courage.
"He has been everybody's strength," said DEI teammate Kenny Wallace. "When he did that television interview, that was really amazing. And that strength helped a lot of people get through Dale's death. Just like at Rockingham, we all showed up and it's like -- 'Man, we got to race this weekend?' And then Dale Jr. showed up and it was OK. His presence made everybody feel better."
Earnhardt Jr. had to mourn his father while at the same time help the nation mourn his father. One year later, he has coped with his father's loss and is helping others continue to cope as he adopts a driving style reminiscent of the Intimidator's. Now, NASCAR needs his strength again. The sport hopes he will emerge as the same type of star his father was, perhaps of the caliber to rival Jeff Gordon.
"He's being asked to carry the sport at this young age and that isn't fair," Gordon said. "But he handles it so well. I've watched him grow up so much more than I thought he could in just one year. He's been such an amazing force throughout this whole year."
Junior says he found the strength then, and now, from his father.
"I try to be myself, but I will ask myself a lot of times, 'What would my Daddy do in this situation?'" he said. "It's hard to believe it's been a year, but it has."
Winston Cup driver
Dale Earnhardt knew this kid was special. He picked him to be his successor, so to speak. When he and team owner Richard Childress were looking for somebody to drive a third car they wanted to field, they wanted to find somebody young and talented who could eventually step into Earnhardt's situation and lead Richard Childress Racing into the future. They found Harvick.
After Earnhardt died, Harvick's timetable for Winston Cup abruptly moved up a season. In hopes of calming the kid, the entire crew pulled him aside after Earnhardt's funeral and sat him down for a talk.
"We just wanted him to drive the car and stay competitive and make it through the year," Childress said. "We didn't want him to put too much pressure on himself. But when he went out and won the third race of his career, I was so emotional because I couldn't understand how someone could do that with everything he had going on."
Harvick had the pressure of taking over for a legend. He had the commitment to fulfill a full Busch schedule. And he had to do both while learning Winston Cup racing. One year later, he has earned the respect of the legend's fans. He fulfilled that Busch schedule and won the championship. And he sure learned how to drive in Winston Cup, winning two races and finishing ninth in the standings.
"Last year was the hardest year of my life," Harvick said. "A lot of people lost their hero, and I did, too. Plus, he was my teacher, and I missed that."
This year, Harvick has dealt with the emotions he didn't have time to last year. And without a Busch commitment, he can focus on becoming only the second driver to ever win the Winston Cup title one year after winning rookie of the year. Earnhardt is the other.
"He'll tell you guys he isn't like Earnhardt," Childress said, "but in a lot of ways he is. And that's what helped all of us. It was a comfort to us that we had the right guy in that seat."
Retired Daytona International Speedway emergency crewman
It was his job. He shot off to the scene of Earnhardt's accident, said he unbuckled Earnhardt's seat belt and then he and his fellow workers got the legend out of the car and into an ambulance. Later, when NASCAR said it had found a broken seat belt in Earnhardt's car, pinning the blame for Earnhardt's death on that, Propst went public and told the Orlando Sentinel that it wasn't true.
He was positive the belt was intact when he unhooked it. Later studies done by NASCAR have not changed the sanctioning body's stance. And, one year after going public, Propst has "retired" from his post, although shortly after the incident he said he had no intentions of leaving his job.
Propst does not speak to the media.
Founder and former chairman of Simpson Performance Products
After spending most of his life developing safety products for drivers -- "because I'm a racer, too, and I want to protect my brothers" -- Simpson said it was a slap in the face that NASCAR blamed his seat belt for causing Earnhardt's death.
He has even filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against NASCAR.
"I'm the man who made this sport as safe as it is today," Simpson said. "I brought them the fire proof uniforms and full-face helmets and these state-of-the-art seat belts. That's crazy what they've done to me."
One year later, Simpson has left the company he founded. He is retired and traveling the country watching races. He says he's happy, "just drinking some lemonade with my friends," but he still has an ax to grind with NASCAR.
"I'm not happy with them," he said. "I didn't deserve this."
Winston Cup driver
He was just trying to get further ahead. Every driver worth his weight in competitive juices has done it before. Earnhardt, himself, would often ride tight on somebody, wait for them to get loose and drive by. It's perfectly legal within the realms of racing.
And yet, this time, it meant the collective finger of an entire fan base aimed straight at him. Marlin never touched Earnhardt's famous black No. 3 Chevy in last year's Daytona 500. He just rode him close and got him loose. But in the instant that Earnhardt's car veered up-track and he died, Marlin became suspect. He was accused of hitting Earnhardt's car and sending it into the wall.
"That (stuff) made me mad," Earnhardt Jr. said. "That was wrong. It wasn't true at all. I wasn't going to have that."
After hearing that Marlin received death threats and hate mail all week, and after showing up at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, N.C., the next weekend to find Marlin's merchandise trailer littered with profanity, Earnhardt Jr. stepped to the microphone during a news conference and laid into everyone who ever thought ill of the Tennessee driver. Just in time, too. Marlin was at a breaking point.
"I was at a point where I didn't think it would ever pass," Marlin said. "I knew I didn't do nothing wrong. It was a racing deal. But some people didn't want to see that. They lost their hero and they were looking to point the finger. I couldn't stand having that said about me, though. It hurt a lot. That was my friend. So when Junior came and talked to me, that sort of took a lot of that pressure off."
One year later, Marlin has moved on, but he hasn't forgotten the fans fickle behavior.
"I'll always remember that. I'll always remember how fast the fans turned on me," Marlin said. "I hate that it happened. I appreciate everybody that stuck by me. ... I've moved past all that, now. It's back to racing this year."
The only question he has is whether the racing will ever be as fun.
"All last year, I kept telling myself it'll be better this year," he said. "There won't be so much of everything else. It'll just be racing. I hope so. I think we could all stand to just have some fun out there. We need that pretty bad."
Winston Cup driver
Whenever Schrader was struggling in a car, Earnhardt was there. He would drive to his house on week days for a chat, or maybe a good roast -- whatever he thought would light a fire under him best that day. For Schrader, Earnhardt was more than a mentor. He was a best friend.
When Earnhardt's car came ricocheting off Turn 4 and finally slowed to a stop in the Daytona infield, Schrader was the first to run up to the No. 3 and check on Earnhardt. What he saw shook him to the core. That day, when asked about what he saw, his face was pale.
Doctors said Earnhardt suffered a basilar skull fracture, which means there was a break where his skull met his spine. The horror of what Schrader must have seen requires no more explanation than that.
"I can't ... I don't really like to talk about that," Schrader says even now.
One year later, he will never shake the image pressed in his head. But it hasn't put thoughts of hanging up the helmet in Schrader's head. He is more determined than ever to race and win -- for his buddy.
"I'm a race car driver," Schrader said. "Dale was, too. He used to always talk to me and help me out. We had a really great friendship. That's something you never forget. He always wanted the best for his friends. When I think about him, it really just makes me want to work harder than ever to win."
Winston Cup driver A little more than a year ago, Waltrip couldn't even find a team owner who wanted his services. After going 462 races without a win, many had given up on him. But not Earnhardt. He had a feeling there was something to this kid brother of his old rival, Darrell.
He was right. He just never got to enjoy the spoils. Earnhardt brought Waltrip onto his DEI fleet, and put Waltrip in the car that he won the Daytona 500 in. The entire time, as he celebrated in Victory Lane, Waltrip waited for a big bear hug from behind. He waited to see Earnhardt's grinning mug.
Of course, Earnhardt never did show up and Waltrip never fully enjoyed his first victory. One year later, after mourning the loss of his friend, Waltrip has learned to do that.
"That's been the biggest thing for me," he said. "Not feeling guilty. I can't. This is what Dale set up for me. He gave me that opportunity and he would have been so proud."
Waltrip said he now takes more pride in that win than he thinks he can ever take in another. And, yet, he can't wait to win another.
"That would kind of vindicate Dale, wouldn't it?" Waltrip said. "He took a chance with me, and I told him I'd do my best for him. And I always will."
Rupen Fofaria is a beat writer for the Raleigh News & Observer.
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