What I’ll never forget from covering that fateful 2001 Daytona 500

To watch the replays even now, the crash doesn’t seem so destructive. We’ve seen dozens and dozens that look more frightening.

When it happened, it didn’t even really grab my attention from my press box seat at Daytona International Speedway. I was more focused on the sprint to the start-finish line, my stomach more in butterflies than a typical finish.

I had spent 1993 and 1994 working for Cohn & Wolfe, a PR firm in Atlanta, and my primary account was Pennzoil’s NASCAR team, with Michael Waltrip as the driver. And here, on February 18, 2001, Michael was leading with just a few hundred yards to go.

I was so nervous and excited and trying to be dead-pan among the bastion of impartiality that is the press box that my friend was about to win his first NASCAR race. The wreck behind him, well, that was just another one of those racin’ deals that happens when things get crazy on the last lap at a superspeedway.

Except it wasn’t.

We know what happened. Dale Earnhardt was killed.

The 20th anniversary of Earnhardt’s death has been a continuing storyline throughout the coverage of this year’s Daytona 500. It just demonstrates how his career continues to resonate among the drivers – though only one of this year’s Daytona drivers was in the 2001 field – and the media.

By 2001, the Daytona 500 had become part of my calendar. Earnhardt was so frequently part of the storyline.

In 1990, I remember how his No. 3 Chevrolet suddenly halted on the backstretch, a tire blown with less than a half-lap remaining, ceding the 1990 win to Derrike Cope. (Unbelievably, Cope, at 62 years old, qualified for this year’s 500. He’s a good guy, but at some point, AARP needs to have precedence over NASCAR.)

I can remember, on what was my fourth day on the job as Huntsville Times sports columnist, leaving the infield media center to watch the last laps of the 1988 race from behind the GM Goodwrench pit area, thinking the scenes there might be the best column fodder. Indeed, the tension on the faces of the crew, then the relief, then the joy, as Earnhardt finally won Daytona on his 20th attempt was fascinating.

Then there was 2001, when Earnhardt was running third and was serving as something of a blocker as the two cars he owned, driven by Waltrip and by Dale Junior, hit the front stretch for the final time.

It took a few minutes to realize the crash might not have been so benign, having dived into the business of postrace interviews. The effervescent Waltrip had already been advised to temper his celebration, and catching him before he began his interview gave me a hint that the wreck was worse than it appeared.

The longer it took for any news to filter in about Earnhardt, the more we all began to realize the severity. Writers calling their newspapers to suggest that they needed to hold space for a major story. Finally, three hours after the checkered flag, NASCAR President Mike Helton made the announcement that “we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.” The sport lost an icon. Helton lost one of this best friends.

I’ve told this story a lot, so forgive me if you’ve already heard it:

The next morning, I returned to the track. Outside the turn 4 wall, fans had posted a makeshift shrine, with flowers and pictures and mementoes.

Pinned to the chain-link fence, there was an American Kennel Club certificate for a purebred dog.

Master Earnhardt of Daytona was the dog’s registered name.

It will come as no surprise that it was a black Rottweiler.

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