It's hard to believe it's been 22 long years since Dale Earnhardt, one of the greatest and most recognized drivers in the history of NASCAR met his tragic end doing what he loved the most - pushing his race car to the limit, at the 2001 Daytona 500.
The whole thing was strange – I mean he was on the brink of a strong finish, but then, in the blink of an eye, it all went haywire. On that final lap, he lost control of his car, and crashed into the outer wall, immediately dying on impact. It was a terrifying moment for everyone who witnessed it.
However, this wasn’t his first rough ride at Daytona. Back in ’97, his car flipped upside down on the backstretch, but he miraculously walked away from that one, just a bit shaken but no major harm done. But that 2001 crash - that was entirely something else.
It’s been over two decades, but people still can't help but wonder, what really happened on that track that ill-fated day? How did a pro like Earnhardt, known for his mastery on the track, ending up in that tragic crash? Read on to find out what went wrong.
What Really Happened in Dale Earnhardt Fatal Car Crash
Events on the Track Before the Car Crash
It all went down on the afternoon of February 18, 2001, at the Daytona Speedway. Dale Earnhardt, the man himself, was there, and he looked pretty darn confident and relaxed in himself. He was winning the race, leading for a whopping 17 laps. The first three-quarters of the race were smooth as butter, with just two little car crashes.
Fast forward to lap 173, Earnhardt's car was hanging in seventh place, with his teammates, Michael Waltrip in the blue No. 15 Chevrolet and his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the fiery red No. 8 Chevrolet, leading the pack. Everything was going on well, and then it happened – a colossal crash on the back straight away that wiped out 18 cars like something out of a Hollywood film.
After that chaos, the race restarted on lap 180, and Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. were still the stars of the show. Sterling Marlin, who had given Earnhardt a run for his money in the Gatorade Duel, had his moment in the sun, leading a few laps before Waltrip swooped back in. The lead changed several times between Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. during the next few laps.
With less than two laps to go, Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. were leading the pack, and Earnhardt Sr. was right behind them, playing the ultimate blocker to keep Marlin at bay. As they hit turn 3 on that final lap, Earnhardt was still in third place, right in the middle of the action, and Marlin's Dodge was hot on his tail in the bottom lane.
Meanwhile Rusty Wallace in his navy blue No. 2 Ford was right behind Earnhardt, with Ken Schrader cruising above in his yellow M&M’s-sponsored No. 36 Pontiac. It was a nail-biting finish to say the least.
The Final Lap: Intense Moments Before the Crash
As the race drew to a close, Dale Earnhardt found himself in a fierce battle for first place. With just one lap separating him from victory, the atmosphere was electric. The tension was obvious as he battled for that coveted top spot.
In a last-ditch effort to secure his place at the front, Earnhardt pulled off a move which made him have a light contact with Marlin’s car, causing him to lose control, veering off the racing line. As he wrestled to regain control of his car and rejoin the race, fate took a cruel turn.
In a split second, his car raced across the path of Ken Schrader, causing a collision that would change the course of history. Their cars clashed with a thunderous impact, dragging them both towards the retaining wall. The angle of the collision was critical, and the sheer force of the crash was enough to rip the right rear wheel assembly clean off Earnhardt's car.
Their crushed vehicles careened down the steep banking, finally coming to rest in the unforgiving infield grass near the exit of turn 4. As the dust settled, miraculously, Schrader managed to climb out of his battered car, shaken but relatively unharmed. He rushed to Earnhardt's side, finding the racing legend still trapped in his cockpit with the window net barrier still up.
Desperation took hold as Schrader lowered the net himself and signalled frantically for the paramedics who were rushing to the scene. The reality was harsh; the injuries sustained in the crash were grave, and there was little that could be done at that point. With a heavy heart, the safety teams of Daytona Speedway had to extract Earnhardt from his crumpled racing machine.
An ambulance rushed him to Halifax Medical Center, which was just two miles from the track. It was a race against time, but despite the valiant efforts of the medical professionals, it was too late. At 5:16 PM, the news that no one wanted to hear was delivered - Dale Earnhardt, the fearless and legendary driver, was no more. He was just 49 years old when he lost his life, a reminder of the fragility of human existence even in the midst of the most thrilling and intense moments of life.
What Fatal Injury Killed Dale Earnhardt?
In the aftermath of the car crash, it was revealed after an autopsy report that Earnhardt suffered from a severe basilar skull fracture. You might wonder, what in the world is a basilar skull fracture? Well, it's a deadly injury that's known for taking the lives of not just Dale but other racers like Roland Ratzenberger, Blaine Johnson, Gonzalo Rodriguez, and Blaise Alexander.
This injury is commonly associated with high-speed impacts. This type of fracture occurs when the base of the skull, near the brainstem, fractures due to excessive force. This can lead to some serious internal bleeding and can mess up the important brain parts that control our body's most vital functions.
The presence of this specific injury indicates that Dale Earnhardt's head experienced tremendous trauma during the crash. A basilar skull fracture is no joke – it's like the worst kind of skull fracture ever because it can mess up the brainstem. And that's the part that tells our body how to breathe, swallow, and do all those things we usually take for granted.
What Was the Cause of Dale Earnhardt’s Death?
As the investigation progressed, experts meticulously examined all available evidence of this unfortunate incident to determine what exactly led to his untimely demise and it was believed that one key factor contributed significantly to his death - a failure in his seatbelt system.
It is believed that during impact, the left part of Earnhardt's seat belt snapped, making him hit his chin on the steering wheel super hard. That hit caused a fatal injury that unfortunately took his life - basilar skull fracture. People thought if his seat belt held up, he might've made it out okay from that crash.
However it is difficult to pinpoint one specific cause or factor as responsible for Dale Earnhardt's death. It was likely a combination of various circumstances including the crash itself, the way it happened in the last moments, the speed, and how his car got hit by Schrader's car.
Safety Improvements in NASCAR: The Impact of Dale Earnhardt Car Crash
After Dale Earnhardt's tragic car crash in 2001, NASCAR wasted no time in making immediate changes to enhance the safety measures in the sport. The most notable change was the mandatory use of head and neck restraints, such as the HANS device. This device helps to minimize head and neck injuries by limiting movement during crashes. NASCAR also made it compulsory for drivers to wear full-face helmets rather than open-face ones, providing better protection for their heads.
In addition to head and neck restraints, NASCAR began requiring use of SAFER barriers (Steel And Foam Energy Reduction). These soft walls are designed to absorb energy upon impact and reduce forces exerted on drivers during collisions with track walls. Also, NASCAR improved seat belt technology by introducing six-point harnesses instead of traditional five-point ones. This change ensures that drivers are more securely restrained within their vehicles, minimizing movement and potential injury during crashes.
Soon after Earnhardt's death which served as a wake-up call for NASCAR, they were prompted to invest in long-term safety enhancements. They pioneered the development of the Car of Tomorrow (CoT), a safer and more driver-friendly car design. The CoT featured improved impact protection, better driver visibility, and enhanced structural integrity to mitigate the risk of severe injuries.
However, as time went on, they came up with the "Gen 6" car in 2013, which had all the safety designs from the CoT and some new features to keep things safer. So yeah, NASCAR took a tough situation and turned it into an opportunity to make the sport safer for everyone. Dale Earnhardt's legacy lives on in the improvements that came after his tragic crash.