My love for racing started as another Hoosier IndyCar fan; as long as I can remember I watched each year's Indianapolis 500 at the end of May. As a kid I would watch the 500 with my Dad; after I graduated high school and moved to Indianapolis I watched from the infield. In my early 20s it was more an expectation of the party that got me to the track in August 1994 - the first year they held the Brickyard 400.
As I watched the drivers throughout practice, qualifying, and the race that week I saw one driver who drove harder, more aggressively, and was more into it than just about anyone else on the track, more than anyone I had seen in open-wheel racing. Dale Earnhardt Sr. put it all out there; he didn't hold anything back. I saw the passion and determination in Dale, and although I started that week as a casual racing fan, by the end of the weekend I was a serious NASCAR and Dale Earnhardt fan.
Fast-forward seven years.
I woke up on that Sunday and it was already a little different than most years on February 18th – it was the first year since I became a Dale Earnhardt fan to have the Daytona 500 running on my birthday. I was hoping for an Earnhardt win as one of my birthday gifts. My family was all meeting at my parents' house in the early afternoon. I would watch the race at their house, and since it was my birthday, the rest of my non-NASCAR loving family would just have to deal with it.
I remember sitting there on their couch as the laps ran down. My family wanted to go eat my birthday dinner, but I wasn't going anywhere until the race was over. They were frustrated and I was excited. This was shaping up to be the best race I had possibly ever watched - Mikey and Junior were up front and Dale was blocking the rest of the field behind them. With five laps to go Sterling Marlin and Ken Schrader were breathing down Dale Sr.'s tailpipes and I was on the edge of the couch. Hands down, some of the very best blocking ever seen in NASCAR took place during the final laps of that race.
The white flag waved and the three cars at the front of the pack charged into the first turn. The black Chevrolet went high and low through turns one and two; to this day I don't know how Dale kept the cars behind him from finding a way around. As they came out of four, it looked like Waltrip would win with Dale Junior a close second. The No. 3 should have crossed the line in the top five, but he got tapped in traffic, got loose between three and four, turned into the wall and came to rest in the infield next to Ken Schrader...but it wasn't a bad wreck, by all appearances.
The last thing I heard before we went out the door to go to my birthday dinner was Darrell Waltrip with tears of happiness for his brother Michael in his voice saying, “This is great...I hope Dale's all right...he's okay isn't he?”
Fast-forward 90 minutes.
I walked in the door at home and the phone was ringing. I picked up and a friend said, “Have you heard? Turn on ESPN...” I did, just in time to see the first of many replays of the words that many cannot forget: "We've lost Dale Earnhardt." I hung up the phone and with tears on my face I watched the replay of the news conference that had first aired as we were wrapping up the last birthday dinner I would let my family schedule on my birthday.
I cried for the loss of not only Dale Earnhardt the driver, the competitor, the Intimidator, but also for the loss of Dale as a person. I cried for the loss I knew his family must feel and for the loss felt by other fans. I cried for the the other drivers and crew who were feeling the loss of a brother in the garage.
Watching the race the following week was hard; I still can't imagine how hard it was for those who shared the track with Dale just the week before. There was an emptiness on the track, a noticeable absence, a perpetual lack of the black No. 3. Whether a person loved Dale Sr.'s aggressive racing or hated it, no one can deny what the hard racing, the bump drafting, the Man in Black driving up on someone's rear bumper, the realness of who he was, how he raced, and what he stood for did for the sport.
Somewhere between mid-February and the end of that season, NASCAR drivers, commentators, and fans adjusted to the new normal – a normal without Dale. From all the things that were lost when Dale Sr. died on the Daytona track, there were gains in driver safety. A quick transition to widespread use of the Hans device and the development of higher car safety standards have probably saved more than one life on the track since 2001.
Many talk of the legacy he left behind, but to me Dale's legacy is not only his children, his grandchildren, the DEI organization, or the development of safer driver and crew conditions. The legacy of Dale Earnhardt Sr. is all of that, but also includes the number of fans he left behind who loved him, fans who loved to hate him, and all of those who couldn't imagine NASCAR without him. We are all part of his legacy, we will never forget, and February 18th will never be the same.
Ralph Dale Earnhardt April 29, 1951 – February 18, 2001