TEN AFTER 3: THE LEGACY OF DALE EARNHARDT; 'We've Lost Dale Earnhardt' Memories of Hearing Those Words Remain Clear to His Fans

By Coble, Don | The Florida Times Union, February 13, 2011 | Go to article overview

TEN AFTER 3: THE LEGACY OF DALE EARNHARDT; 'We've Lost Dale Earnhardt' Memories of Hearing Those Words Remain Clear to His Fans


Coble, Don, The Florida Times Union


Byline: DON COBLE

DAYTONA BEACH - Whether you were sitting in Turn 4 of the Daytona International Speedway or watching from your couch, the memory of Dale Earnhardt's death on the final lap of the Daytona 500 remains vivid to a lot of people.

Everyone saw the same thing: Earnhardt's car moving left to block the advance of Sterling Marlin; the cars touching, sending Earnhardt's car into a spin on the apron and back across the track; the car striking Ken Schrader's car and ramming head-first into the outside wall.

At first, it seemed like hundreds of other crashes. Everyone expected Earnhardt to climb out of his car, wave in approval of Michael Waltrip's victory or shake his fist in disgust.

Nobody expected what really happened - Schrader running to the car and instantly waving for help; emergency crews using a blue tarp to hide the extrication; the ambulance leaving the scene and driving directly to Halifax Medical Center; Schrader's ashen expression as he tried to tell Michael Waltrip in Victory Lane.

And NASCAR president Mike Helton delivering those gut-wrenching words: "Undoubtedly, this is one of the toughest announcements I've ever personally had to make. After the accident in Turn 4 at the end of the Daytona 500, we've lost Dale Earnhardt."

The movements of that day have been clinically documented. The feelings, however, remain vivid and painful. Fans thought differently of the seven-time champion, so the crash affected them in different ways.

"I remember it well, because he struggled so long to win that race," said actor Patrick Dempsey. "This place had always been tormenting to him. That's what I remember most. It was like the heart and soul left racing that day.

"He was an old guard that won't ever come back. It was a very sad week for me. I was on the couch watching the race the whole time. It looked like a small hit. When I found out, it was a dark day."

Dempsey was at home in California watching the race on television. Despite being across the country, it didn't lessen his pain.

Ned Yost, a personal friend of Earnhardt's, had just finished a spring-training workout at Walt Disney World with the Atlanta Braves when he heard Earnhardt was taken to the hospital. The third-base coach was on his way to Daytona Beach when Earnhardt's pilot, Mike Collier, called with the news.

"When I saw Kenny Schrader's face when he came out from the infield hospital, I got in my car and headed to Daytona," Yost said. "I knew he was hurt, but it didn't even enter my mind that he was hurt bad. I called Mike and said, 'What do you know?' And he said, 'I don't know anything.' I said, 'I'm coming, because I know Dale is going to spend the night in the hospital. I'll come up and hang with you guys.'

"About a half-hour later, he called me and said he's gone. I said, 'What do you mean he's gone? He's left the hospital?' 'No,' he said. 'He didn't make it.' I stopped right there and turned around and came home."

Yost, now the manager for the Kansas City Royals, still calls his hunting buddy "the most incredible person I've ever met."

We asked our readers for their memories of that day. More than 200 responded. A decade has done little to erase the images of that day. Or the pain.

Earnhardt seemed indestructible. After all, legends aren't supposed to die in front of our eyes, especially on the sport's biggest stage.

Anthony Penoso of Jacksonville was at the race with three of his friends, including Oakland Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski.

"It was difficult to come to grips with the reality that we witnessed the passing of a great American hero and icon of NASCAR in a tragic accident that day," he said. "The end of the race signaled an end of an era. We rode home mostly in silence."

Fans clamored for information. They watched the 24-hour news and sports networks and clogged newspaper web sites. …

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