This past week’s Daytona 500 and the reminder of Dale Earnhardt’s death that stunningly happened 10 years ago is still fresh on the minds of many. However, it was the week after that it really hit home for most, including me.
At the time, I was a senior in high school and on Christmas Day I got tickets to the event that followed the Daytona 500, which was at the North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham. That Sunday, February 25, 2001, I get to the track and the scene was surreal.
Along Highway 1, a huge and historic rock, which deemed the venue its nickname as “The Rock”, was surrounded by hundreds of people on a cool, gloomy and cloudy day. Thousands had already paid their respects that weekend by placing cards, flowers and pictures of Dale alongside this sediment that had his name engraved in it as a three-time winner there. Traditionally, if a Sprint Cup driver won at Rockingham, their name would be etched on that rock.
The theme continued with folks pouring in, paying their respects that Sunday. Even music boxes played somberly as some shed tears and hugged the closest person that meant something to them.
Some people stopped to pray. It’s was like a “Coming to Jesus moment” for certain folks at the track that day and something to never forget.
Think about this! Here is a man who was involved in so many terrible wrecks that he survived throughout his career, yet it seemed impossible that he had been killed in a race car. Don’t get me wrong, Dale was not to be worshiped, but I admit the feelings were numb that Sunday because you always had to pay attention to what ol’ Ironhead was up to every weekend.
A little later as the green flag waved to this new beginning without Dale Sr. racing, people waved hand out pennants from the speedway with the #3 on it.
On the first lap of the race though, it was his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. that crashed out of the event. As odd as that seemed, Junior would walk away okay.
In short, only 55 laps of racing took place that day as rain forced the event to be run to its entirety (393 laps) on Monday.
For dinner, NASCAR President Mike Helton strolls into a Pizza Hut unexpectedly in Aberdeen where my father and I are eating. However, I couldn’t help but engage myself in a conversation with Mike. The irony, about the same time one week before, he echoed the words in a NASCAR press conference --- “We lost Dale Earnhardt.” There was no doubt, the concept was still taking a toll on him too.
When Monday came, the weather was much better, but a more surprising thing caught my attention. There were people surrounding the official merchandise hauler of Dale’s. People were allowed to sign their name and write comments in permanent marker on that black and white Goodwrench #3 hauler. Literally, there were people standing on top of other people’s shoulder just to find a place to scribble out what exactly was on their hearts and minds at such an indescribable time.
When racing resumed that Monday, Dale Earnhardt Incorporated driver, Steve Park battle intensely with Bobby Labonte. In coming to the white flag, Park pinched a hard charging Labonte into the outside turn four wall. It gave Park just enough cushion to barely cross the stripe first, for victory on the next lap.
For once in a long eight days of sadness, the sun basked overhead on the sport as crews and fans alike received a small amount of medicine with a DEI car in the winner’s circle that afternoon.