The 2016 NASCAR season-opener is upon us and as exciting as that prospect is, I can’t help but think back 15 years ago.
It’s as though it happened yesterday. I remember everything. When Dale Earnhardt crashed on the last lap, I just had a terrible feeling that it was bad. When he didn’t climb out of that car immediately, as he had done so many times before after crashes that appeared much more severe, I got a sick feeling.
Then Kenny Schrader was interviewed after being one of the first people on the scene and said, “I’m no doctor.” And I remember Darrell Waltrip’s comment moments after the race was over, “I hope Dale is OK.” Seeing the ambulance rushing Earnhardt to the hospital, I just remember thinking “this can’t be happening. It’s not real.”
Then I went outside and met my neighbor Gary , perhaps the biggest Dale Earnhardt fan on the planet and I’ll remember the look on his face as long as I live. Gary knows racing and he knew this was the kind of crash that can be serious.
And NASCAR president Mike Helton announcing “We have lost Dale Earnhardt.”
I was and I always be a Dale Jr. fan at heart. It was hard to admit back then, but Dale Earnhardt was special. It was kinda like Pete Rose during his prime. You hated him, but he’s the one person you wanted on your team.
And Earnhardt had changed. He had become human. He had a young daughter, he was married to a young, beautiful women who was sharp as a tack. He was a jokester, pulling pranks on other drivers and TV announcers. He was good friends with Waltrip’s wife Stevie. Exchanging Bible verses with her before each race. And he smiled a lot.
But behind the wheel he was still tenacious.
Hate turned into respect and, to many like Gary, it was a love affair.
So many of us round-d-round fans will never be the same. That day in 2001 changed us forever. The sport has changed too since then, but we still love it.
I guess something in all of us died that day. How can you not think about that when they go racing Sunday?