Thursday marks the 15th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s death on the final lap of the Daytona 500. At the time of the accident Earnhardt ran third to two cars Dale Earnhardt Inc. owned, Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Today the tragedy still shakes the very foundation of the sport. FOX Sports telecast of the race marked the start of a massive contract FOX, NBC and TNT signed with NASCAR which brought the majority of races to broadcast TV for the first time.
NASCAR returned to Daytona for the July 2001 race where Dale Earnhardt Jr. won in dramatic fashion and what some considered a psy op. The sport boomed for much of the 2000s and rivaled ball and stick sports in popularity. Tracks expanded capacity and still easily sold out.
Fans who attended races for years afterwards could buy framed photos from the backstretch from the fateful final lap at Daytona at souvenir stands – Waltrip’s number 15 followed by Dale Jr. and Dale Sr. Diecast models of the no. 3 car still outsell those of most current drivers.
The NASCAR bubble popped along with the Great Recession of 2009. Many sponsors left, fans stayed away in droves and although NASCAR now has even more lucrative television contracts, mainstream interest has not returned.
15 years later many wonder where NASCAR would be if Dale Earnhardt did not die – the worst part is that it did not have to happen.
The 2000 NASCAR season was rocked by three deaths, one in each of the three major series. 19-year old Adam Petty, racing’s first fourth-generation driver, died after a stuck throttle caused his car to crash full-force into the wall before a Busch Series race at New Hampshire International Speedway. Just two months later Cup driver Kenny Irwin died in nearly the exact same spot at the same track under the same circumstances. Later that year Truck Series driver Tony Roper died due to a crash. All three drivers, along with ARCA driver Blaise Alexander the following year died from basal skull fractures, basically an internal decapitation.
Safety rules are often written out of blood. The 2000 off-season would have been a good time for NASCAR to proactively think more of mandatory head-and-neck restraints and SAFER barriers. But instead they waited until the sport lost the one person they could not afford to lose the most.
Steve Park suffered serious injuries in a freak accident later in the 2001 season and Jerry Nadeau retired after a near-fatal accident at Richmond in 2003. Other than that NASCAR has had a spotless safety record with no deaths in the Cup, Nationwide or Truck Series since Feb. 18, 2001.
20-year-old Chase Elliott sits on the pole position for the 2016 Daytona 500, his father Bill Elliott sat on the pole 15 years earlier. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in the field and Michael Waltrip has entered and will attempt to earn a starting position in the Thursday qualifying race.
Other than that, only two drivers from the 2001 race still compete at NASCAR’s top level, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch, legend says the rookie driver was flipped off by Earnhardt in the 2001 race.
The Daytona 500 is still proclaimed as the Great American Race and the one time mainstream sports media follows stock car racing. But fans past and present still wonder what direction NASCAR would have gone if Dale Earnhardt were still alive.