Ten years ago today, one of the greatest NASCAR drivers and one of the greatest personalities in all sports tragically died doing what he loved most.
Everyone has their “I remember where I was” moments for various triumphs and tragedies. I vividly remember sitting in the front seat of the rental car as the news came over the radio. Dad was exiting the highway as we entered Orlando. We were coming back from the race and had been listening to post-race highlights and reports the whole way back from Daytona. After hours of sitting in race traffic, then the drive down I-4, perhaps the most unsettling news thus far had been the lack of news.
We had seen the wreck. We had seen the moving finish, when Michael Waltrip won his first race– the greatest race, at that — in his first week as a driver for his friend, Dale Earnhardt.
And we had seen that the owner of the car had not come to congratulate him.
Hours passed, and no word about Dale. I suppose we all knew. But it seemed too impossible to be true.
I didn’t like Dale Earnhardt at the time; I came into the sport as a Jeff Gordon fan, so it was a given that Earnhardt was an enemy. That doesn’t mean I didn’t think he was an incredible race car driver — that’s an objective fact. And now that I know more about NASCAR (and more about him), some races I wonder if I wouldn’t be an Earnhardt fan today if he was still racing. I think I might.
Another vivid memory from the days that passed was the video that Dale Jr released after his father’s death — his first public statement after that February afternoon, where he lost his dad at the same moment he finished 2nd in the greatest race in NASCAR. I remember it being dark and almost home-movie like, and I saw there the face of a grieving son who wanted to stay strong. He returned to racing the next week.
For the most part, Dale Jr. has kept to himself about everything over the past 10 years. He has admitted now that after it happened he never wanted to see another track or race car ever again. But he went back. It’s not really for us to decide whether that was right or wrong — he went back to doing what his dad loved and what his dad had taught him to love.
And five months later, when NASCAR first returned to the track where he lost his father, Dale Jr won the Pepsi 400.
This year, there will be one person I think everyone would be happy to see win the Daytona 500. He’s the one I’ll be rooting for on Sunday.