The world of Motorsports was forever changed 20 years ago today, as one of NASCAR’s most iconic and recognizable figures lost his life on a last-lap crash of the Daytona 500.
A moment frozen in time for the loss of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. was actually a catalyst in the sport’s history for better safety in NASCAR. “The Intimidator” may physically be gone, but his presence remains alive as one of the best to ever turn laps around the track.
Many of NASCAR’s competitors, both past and present, and those who knew Earnhardt best came together to honor his legacy this week. Here are some of those who paid tribute to No. 3.
ESPN takes you back to that day through the eyes of Dale Jr., as he recalls the emotions of the tragic event from 20 years ago. A must-see E60 special available now on ESPN+.
“Earnhardt was a pioneer among professional athletes who trademarked their signatures and image, and the first auto racer to do it — a high school dropout (his greatest regret) who built a business empire estimated to be worth half a billion dollars when he died. He founded his own merchandise company and ended up handling souvenir sales for nearly all of NASCAR’s other stars, including his fiercest rivals.
“A decade after his death, he was still the second-best-selling driver when it came to merchandise, trailing only his son of the same name. He won 34 races at Daytona, from all-star shootouts to the 1998 Daytona 500. He won nine times at Darlington Raceway.
“He won a record 10 times at Talladega Superspeedway, including the last of his 76 career victories in 2000, when he dashed from 18th to first over the race’s final six laps. That otherworldly final Earnhardt win capped off a runner-up finish in the championship standings, at age 49.”
-Ryan McGee, ESPN.com
“Someone will ask me, you know, explain to us Dale Earnhardt. Explaining Dale, that’s like trying to explain John Wayne or Neil Armstrong or other heroes from that era that you can no longer experience.
“… But you still try to explain it, because there was no one else like him. Never will be.”
“I remember about halfway through (the first day the garage was open for Speedweeks in 2001) walking over to the NASCAR hauler, and as I turned the corner I bumped right into Dale. He and I stood there and talked for probably 20, 30 minutes, and it’s actually probably the last conversation he and I had, little did I know that. I just saw so much bounce in his step.
“He just had run the 24-hour (sports car) race and Dale had kind of felt like he had gotten a little bit behind on his road racing and man, he was just going on and on and on about how much he enjoyed it and how much he learned that he couldn’t wait to get to Sonoma. I just felt kind of a renewed energy about him in general.
“I left that conversation saying, “You know what, he’s going to win him some races this year. He’s back in championship form, just his attitude and everything about him.”
“(Dale Earnhardt) was like a bird dog. He was all over the place. He was cutting people off, running people up the track. And he was protecting Michael and Dale Jr. so nobody could get to them because he knew if somebody got to them, they might be able to get by them and they wouldn’t win the race. So he was kind of doing his thing, which was totally out of character; I’ve never seen him do that before. It was always the other way around, other people were helping him.”