By Reid Spencer
Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service
(February 18, 2011)
When Dale Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, 2001, NASCAR lost a legend. But, according to those who knew him and raced against him, he lives on through the advancements in safety the tragedy helped bring about.
He made racing safer
Richard Childress, Earnhardt’s car owner and best friend:
“It’s sad that we had to lose an icon like Dale Earnhardt for the sport to be so much safer and better for all the drivers. You look at some of the horrendous crashes we’ve had since that, and the drivers get out and walk away. I feel much better watching my two grandsons (Austin Dillon and Ty Dillon) race today. … It was a sad day. It still is. But the one good thing that came out of it is we do have safer racetracks and safer equipment for all our drivers today.”
He made the sport what it is today
Kevin Harvick, who succeeded Earnhardt at Richard Childress Racing:
“The day was tough for everybody at RCR and everybody involved in it and for the whole sport in general. But as we look back 10 years, when you look at the safety of the tracks and the safety of the cars and the attention that NASCAR has paid to those things … it’s changed the world of racing from top to bottom. … You can draw so many positives now out of something that was so devastating for the whole sport. A lot of things changed on that day.
“I just happened to be in that car, and that car is important to the sport, and the history that Richard (Childress) and Dale made will always (be) at RCR. It’s not something that you need to try to get away from. It’s something that you need to understand and respect, and, I think, as you look at the sport, it’s the same way. That’s always going to be a part of the history of the sport and a big reason the sport is at the level that it is today.”
He made the HANS device mandatory
Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt’s foremost rival in the 1990s as well as his friend and business associate:
“If I had to pick one (safety enhancement he helped bring about), it would be the HANS device. I think while it was optional (before) and some people were using them, it was uncomfortable. By implementing that as mandatory, it forced HANS to make HANS devices that fit each one of us—made them more comfortable, more lightweight, allowed us to be able to move our heads around. I think now I can’t imagine getting into a racecar—I can’t imagine getting into my street car—without one.
“I think he just did so much for the sport, and today, I think we’re still benefiting from everything he put into it, everything that he meant, the fans he brought into it. And it’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years. It really is.”
He made an impression
Kurt Busch, whose first Cup race at Daytona was in 2001:
“He has always been the Intimidator, and he has always been the one that was an innovator out on the track with the draft. And when he passed away, we lost so much, as far as our leadership in the garage area and how he could communicate with NASCAR to develop rules or to explain to them how the cars needed to be changed or adjusted. The one thing that came from his passing was the safety innovations in our sport, and that is what has continued on as his legacy—how we’ve kept so many drivers safe since that point.
“That was my first-ever Daytona 500, and to have that type of news and to have those feelings, like, Man, what am I getting into? We just lost the most iconic individual of our time—obviously, other than Richard Petty—and here I am starting out my first race.”