Ryan Newman doesn’t believe that people remember Dale Earnhardt for the way he died 20 years ago today. But there is no denying that a big part of Earnhardt’s legacy and impact on the sport is what has happened in the two decades since his fatal crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
“We learned a lot, and we collectively have kept so many drivers alive since then because of the adjustments that have been made in the safety of our sport,” Newman said.
Newman is one of those drivers. All of the safety advances made in the wake of Earnhardt’s death and from other lessons were in Newman’s Roush Fenway Racing Ford last year when he had a frightening crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500. But Newman, after a two-day stay in the hospital, walked away with nothing more than a brain bruise.
Perhaps NASCAR should be looked at in the years’ BD and AD, meaning before Earnhardt’s death and after Earnhardt’s death. Before Earnhardt died, NASCAR wasn’t blind to safety, according to Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, but the conversations certainly accelerated after he died. In fact, the conversations changed completely.
“It certainly accelerated the conversation around the HANS device,” said O’Donnell. “That wasn’t immediately accepted; that was a fight with some drivers to say, ‘This is real, and you need to use this.’”
Some in the garage had been urging their drivers to start wearing the HANS device after the deaths of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr., and Tony Roper in 2000. Brett Bodine was an early proponent of the device, although he caught grief from some of his fellow competitors for wearing it. Earnhardt was not a fan of the HANS device and was even on the record calling it a “damn noose.” Five drivers were wearing the device in the ’01 Daytona 500 before it became mandatory in October 2001.
“SAFER barriers, same thing,” continued O’Donnell. “Why do the tracks need to put them in? Will it really make a difference? (Earnhardt’s death) helped speed along those conversations, but the culture is what Dale Earnhardt changed, and it was a full culture of all those things.
“Certainly, the HANS device and the SAFER barriers were huge, but it’s our ability to each and every day talk about technology, talk about safety. We continue to have people in the industry approach us about those ideas versus just talking about how to make the car go fast.”
Thousands of words have been written about Earnhardt in the last 20 years. Documentaries and movies have tried to explain what made him so polarizing. Others just wanted to share a rags to auto racing riches story.
Earnhardt was the sport’s most popular driver, and maybe its most relatable with the fans. In his career, Earnhardt earned the nickname “The Intimidator,” but it wasn’t until he passed that many realized he was actually Superman, and losing Superman caused a seismic shift in NASCAR.
Earnhardt was the guy who could walk into the NASCAR hauler for a conversation. Because of his close relationship with the France family, Earnhardt’s was a voice — a loud one — that people listened to and considered.
Kevin Harvick points out that Earnhardt changed the sport in many ways. There was his relationship with NASCAR and the things Earnhardt did off the track. Considered a larger-than-life personality, Earnhardt was one of those who helped take NASCAR from niche to mainstream. He and Jeff Gordon were some of the earliest to change the game when it came to merchandise and marketing. It wasn’t just the world of NASCAR that knew the Earnhardt name.
But with Earnhardt, it will always go back to safety.
“I think the impact that he has had after his death on the safety of this sport has been something that’s just far greater than would have happened with anybody else,” said Harvick. “And I think that impact will probably be his impact from a competitors’ standpoint that some of them at this particular day and age might not even realize the impact that he has had on the safety side of it.
“His presence transcended outside of just NASCAR,” said O’Donnell. “The sport was really growing, and maybe some of the ideas (about safety) outside of the garage bubble came from (his death) as well because of how big a star he was and how big a name he was.”
Richard Childress still thinks about Earnhardt and what Earnhardt would do today. But as terrible as it was to lose his good friend and how it will be something many never get over, Childress understands a lot came from that fateful day.
“There have been some horrendous crashes,” said Childress. “Austin Dillon’s (in 2015 at Daytona) and Ryan Newman’s. You can go down the list of crashes, and these drivers have walked away because of safety.”
NASCAR racing made Earnhardt successful, wealthy, and celebrated. In turn, Earnhardt made racing entertaining, and more than two decades later, better off because of him.
“We’ve come a long way since 2001, but making our racing safer is something that is never over,” said John Patalak, NASCAR senior vice president of innovation and safety development. “Racing is still a dangerous sport, so we’ll continue to work on our safety research projects and continue to learn and look for ways to make racer safer with our industry. And we’ll continue to search for the next generation of tools that will unlock these future safety advances.”