Dale Earnhardt

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Dale Earnhardt

Ralph Dale Earnhardt, Sr. (April 29, 1951February 18, 2001) was an American NASCAR driver. He was born in Kannapolis, North Carolina. He died in a racing accident in turn four on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Earnhardt grew up in a racing family. His father, Ralph, died of a heart attack while working on his race car in 1973. Dale Earnhardt began with his racing career two years later, and by 1979 he had won the Winston Cup Rookie of the Year award. For his aggressive driving style, Earnhardt quickly won the nickname "The Intimidator." He is generally credited with authorship of the quotation "second place is the first loser." His aggressiveness was always businesslike and in the service of competitive success, however; he was never vindictive or purposelessly aggressive on the track.

During his career, Earnhardt won the NASCAR Championship seven times, tying the record of the legendary Richard Petty. Additionally, his prize winnings totaled more than $41 million. In addition to a hard-charging racing style, Earnhardt was known for being excellent at drafting, the phenomenon where two cars lined up together go faster than one car alone. Earnhardt discovered "side-drafting." Earnhardt was also known for his dominance at restrictor plate racing. Restrictor plates are used at two superspeedways, Daytona and Talladega, where drafting also plays a large role in who wins — subsequently Dale Earnhardt and the teams he had worked with all do very well at those tracks. Earnhardt himself had 10 wins at Talladega alone. He won 76 points races overall, fourth on the alltime list.

Although he had won at Daytona many times in many different races--including six Budweiser Shootouts, two Pepsi 400s, twelve Gatorade Twin 125s (including ten in a row from 1990 through 1999) and six IROC races--it took him until 1998 to win the Daytona 500, on his twentieth try.

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Dale drove the #3 car for most of his career, spanning the late 1970s until his unfortunate passing in 2001. As of 2005, no other Nextel Cup race car has used this number, and NASCAR has considered officially retiring it.

In 1981, after a successful two and a half year stint with car owner Rod Osterlund, winning the 1980 championship, Osterlund sold his team to J. D. Stacy. Earnhardt never liked Stacy, and when independent driver Richard Childress was given an offer to retire and let Earnhardt take over his #3 car, complete with Earnhardt's Wrangler Jeans sponsorship, Childress gave up his ride to field cars for Earnhardt. That partnership won 69 of Earnhardt's 76 races. While Earnhardt and Childress decided to split after the 1981 season (Earnhardt drove for Walter Moore, and Childress hired Ricky Rudd), they returned for 1984, and created one of the most successful teams in motorsports.

The #3 was sponsored by Wrangler Jeans, and later by Goodwrench. Earnhardt drove a Chevrolet model, that moved through the decades as a Lumina and later a Monte Carlo. The sinister looking all-black Goodwrench Chevrolet became the best-known car driven by Earnhardt. Although Earnhardt eventually formed his own racing outfit--Dale Earnhardt Incorporated (DEI)--his loyalty to and friendship with Richard Childress kept aligned with RCR as a driver.

Dale Earnhardt in NASCAR was a very polarizing figure. People either loved him or hated him, but he was arguably one of the most popular drivers in the sport. Earnhardt's death drew a considerable reaction from the nation, NASCAR, and of course grief-stricken fans. It is remarkable that his son, Dale Jr., is still officially marked as "Earnhardt Jr." on the ticker, even though there is no longer a need to distinguish between father and son on the racetrack.

Earnhardt kept his private life generally private. He enjoyed the company of his family, being in the outdoors, hunting and fishing, and actively working his farm in Kannapolis, riding a tractor instead of a racecar. In contrast with his image as a hardnosed competitor on the track, off the track he was known to his friends as someone who was charitable and generous, but kept that side of himself private from the rest of the world.

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The final turn of 2001's Daytona 500

At the time of his death he was survived by his third wife Teresa and four children: Son Kerry (from his first marriage to Latane Brown), Kelley, Dale Jr. (both from his second marriage to Brenda Gee), and daughter Taylor (from his third marriage). Kerry and Dale Jr. are both NASCAR drivers. Dale Jr. finished second when his father died at the 2001 Daytona 500. The winner of that race, Michael Waltrip, was one of Dale's closest friends, and drove for DEI.

Three weeks after Earnhardt's death, young California driver Kevin Harvick, hired to replace him in the now-renumbered and repainted #29 GM Goodwrench Service Plus Chevrolet, scored a win at Atlanta. The Fox television commentators' call of the final lap of the 2001 Golden Corral 500, with Harvick defeating Jeff Gordon by .006 seconds, and the images of Earnhardt's longtime fueler, Danny "Chocolate" Myers crying after the victory, are among of the most memorable moments in recent motorsports history, In 2004, his life story was made into a television movie by ESPN titled, 3: The Dale Earnhardt Story.

Controversy over cause of death

At a news conference five days after the fatal crash, NASCAR officials announced that a seat belt had broken in Earnhardt's car. Daytona International Speedway physician Dr. Steve Bohannon said he thought the faulty belt had allowed Earnhardt's chin to strike the steering wheel, killing him. The manufacturers of seat belts for NASCAR, Simpson Race Products of Charlotte, North Carolina, maintained that the belt had failed because it had been installed in an unapproved fashion in order to increase Earnhardt's comfort, an allegation that had been supported by some who were familiar with the situation. Certainly, being held responsible for the death of NASCAR's most popular driver was not a desirable prospect for Simpson. On the other hand, NASCAR also did not wish to be seen as negligent in not requiring adequate head and neck restraint for drivers in the wake of five fatal accidents in the past 11 months, including popular drivers Kenny Irwin, Jr., Tony Roper, and Adam Petty, grandson of NASCAR's most legendary driver, Richard Petty.

The Orlando Sentinel attempted to acquire Earnhardt's autopsy records and photos for study, autopsy records being normally public documents in Florida, but Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, (along with public opinion) prevailed upon a judge to seal the records. After a short court battle, it was mutually agreed to appoint Dr. Barry Myers, a Duke University expert on crash injuries, to independently study Earnhardt's death. On April 10, 2001, Myers published his report rejecting NASCAR's explanation, finding that Earnhardt's death was in fact the result of his inadequately restrained head and neck snapping forward, independently of the broken seat belt (making the question of proper or improper installation moot).

"If the outboard lap belt had remained intact throughout the crash, Mr. Earnhardt's head would still likely have experienced similar inertial forces and similar contact forces with the steering wheel. As such, the restraint failure does not appear to have played a role in Mr. Earnhardt's fatal injury."[1] (http://www.orlandosentinel.com/orl-dalereporttext041001,0,6293625.story?coll=orl-home-headlines)

Dr. Philip Villanueva, a University of Miami neurosurgeon who had previously analyzed the crash for the Sentinel before the autopsy records were available, said he had reached the same conclusion, but had wanted to examine the autopsy photos to be certain. Dr. Steve Olvey, medical director of Championship Auto Racing Teams for 22 years, and Wayne State University crash expert John Melvin also agreed with Myers' report. Simpson's founder, Bill Simpson, called the report "the best news I've heard in seven weeks. I've been living in daily hell."

On the same day as Myers' report was made public, NASCAR announced its own investigation, after having remained silent for six weeks since the accident. When the greatly anticipated official NASCAR report[2] (http://www.nascar.com/SPECIAL/er/download/), which had cost over a million dollars, was published on August 21, 2001, however, it cited collision with another car, the speed and angle of impact, and separation of the seat belt as factors in the fatality. After NASCAR's report, Simpson retired, citing the stress as "too much." The Simpson company attorneys asked NASCAR to unequivocally assert that

  • The belts were of high quality in workmanship and there were no design or manufacturing defects.
  • The belts met the NASCAR rule book requirements.
  • The belts, as installed, did not conform to manufacturer installation requirements.
  • The separation of the left lap belt was not a result of design or manufacturing defect, but caused by improper installation.
  • The belt separation was not the cause of Earnhardt's death.

NASCAR however, did not respond.

Consonant with its report, NASCAR declined at the time to require drivers to wear the uncomfortable head and neck restraints, NASCAR president Mike Helton saying "We are still not going to react for the sake of reacting." However, it did state that it "encouraged their use". Drivers were indeed encouraged, with 41 out of 43 drivers wearing them at the Pepsi 400 by Meijer at Michigan International Speedway on August 19, 2001 two days before NASCAR's report came out.

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