The 2001 Daytona 500 remains the darkest day in NASCAR history.
The death of Dale Earnhardt in a crash on the final lap of the race robbed a family of its patriarch and the industry of the biggest stock car star of its day. But beyond the seven championships, character of The Intimidator and fierce rivalries that propelled NASCAR into the mainstream, Earnhardt’s lasting legacy may be how his death changed motor racing safety.
NASCAR was still reeling from three driver deaths in 2000 – Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr. and Tony Roper – ahead of a Daytona 500 that seemed determined to set a new course for the series.
NASCAR had moved at its own pace to impose safety rules at a time when some drivers were reluctant to wear improved technologies such as the Head And Neck Safety (HANS) device. Some complained it was too bulky for a comfortable ride, while others suggested the upgrades were too simplistic for a sport akin to chaos on the track.
The Daytona 500 also marked the first year of NASCAR’s six-year, $2.8 billion television deal with Fox and NBC, a television deal at the time that symbolized NASCAR’s true emergence as a mass sports powerhouse.
The splashy debut was forever marred by Earnhardt’s death at the age of 49.
It forced NASCAR to finally forcefully confront its safety issues and force vital advances that have impacted every wreck in the past 22 years. Just look at Ryan Newman, who survived a fatal crash in the 2020 Daytona 500 largely because of the collective growth — from car to gear — in safety.
“We lost many lives before him,” said three-time Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin, “but until it was ‘The Man’ himself, it wasn’t front and center.”
As part of the celebration of NASCAR’s 75th season, The Associated Press interviewed 12 veteran industry contributors on topics ranging from the most memorable race to major challenges ahead. With the death of NASCAR’s toughest star from a basilar skull fracture, Earnhardt’s crash was singled out as the most pivotal moment in NASCAR history.
It wasn’t a unanimous choice: Richard Petty and team owner Eddie Wood noted how in 1971 tobacco giant RJ Reynolds scored NASCAR’s elite Winston Cup series and did racing sponsorship on a car as common as four wheels and a racing number. The long-running meeting at the Streamline Hotel that led to the formation of NASCAR drew team owner Rick Hendrick as the most pivotal moment.
And while safety measures over the past two decades have drawn attention, it was NASCAR’s waning popularity and the impossible search for the next Earnhardt following the crash that earned him a vote from Deb Williams, an AP panelist now in her fourth decade of racing coverage.
“Thousands of fans lost interest in the sport with Earnhardt’s death while others didn’t like the changes in racing formats,” she said. “They also didn’t like the changes brought about by the new TV deal, as they felt the sport’s history had been pushed aside. Motorsport historians often point to Earnhardt’s death as the start of the sport’s decline.
There are only a few instances in any sport where tragedy is at the forefront of most fans’ minds. There are no grainy replays or second-hand stories passed on about the event. The clip is just a click away on any device.
“It changed everything for NASCAR,” said veteran driver Lyn St. James.
NASCAR has yet to have another death in the series since Earnhardt’s death. On the 20th anniversary of the 2001 Daytona 500, the AP noted the three biggest safety improvements during that time:
• SAFER Barriers: Steel and foam energy reduction barrier designed to absorb and reduce kinetic energy in high speed collisions. “Soft walls” have been gradually added to nearly all NASCAR tracks, first in high impact areas and later, after Kyle Busch broke both legs in a 2015 crash at Daytona, on nearly all exposed wall locations.
• HANS Device: NASCAR mandated the use of head and neck restraints in late 2001. Drivers had resisted using the carbon fiber U-shaped neck restraint because they found it restrictive. They became mandatory equipment after Blaise Alexander, 25, was killed in a crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway eight months after Earnhardt’s death.
• Redesigned cars: NASCAR has developed three new cars since 2001, each adapting to the latest technologies. The latest ‘Next Gen’ car debuted in 2022 to some controversy. Drivers have expressed anger and concern for their safety after several drivers suffered concussions.
Yet through missed races, hospital stays, even the premature endings of a career like that of 2004 NASCAR champion Kurt Busch due to the lingering effects of a concussion, every driver has walked away and lived another day.
In their solemn way, every NASCAR driver who has taken the wheel since 2001 can pay tribute and appreciate how the death of an old-school driver led to pivotal revolutions in thought and technology that continue to this day.
AP NASCAR at Voting Panel 75: Edsel Ford, longtime Ford executive; Tony Gibson, retired NASCAR crew chief; Jeff Gordon, four-time NASCAR champion; Denny Hamlin, three-time Daytona 500 champion; Rick Hendrick, founder of Hendrick Motorsports; Jimmie Johnson, seven-time NASCAR champion; Winston Kelley, executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame; Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR Chief Operating Officer; Richard Petty, NASCAR Hall of Fame driver; Lyn St. James, one of nine women to qualify for the Indianapolis 500; Deb Williams, award-winning NASCAR journalist; Eddie Wood, co-owner of Wood Brothers Racing.