Ricciardo cried with a friend on the phone upon learning of Dale Earnhardt’s death, but says the legendary NASCAR driver later inspired his own approach to racing in Formula 1.
Earnhardt was killed 20 years ago today in a crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, at the age of 49. The seven-time NASCAR Cup champion was a hero of Ricciardo’s that the Australian chose to pay tribute to with his driver number choice of No. 3 in Formula 1, and the now-McLaren driver says his desire to be more respected on the track also came from trying to emulate Earnhardt.
“I remember vividly the race 20 years ago,” Ricciardo said. “My reaction to the news. I was crying, I was crying, I called my friend at the time, Steven — we raced go-karts together and he was also a big Earnhardt fan. I called him and we basically cried on the phone together.
“He was a hero for sure, and it was really in 2014 when I took on the No. 3, and I also had it in the back of my mind to take on ‘The Intimidator’ and my version of that was ‘The Honey Badger.’ I felt it was my year to make a bit of a statement, to be the guy that was, let’s say, not afraid to put on a big move, to race hard.
“I didn’t feel I’d quite had that yet, and that first year with Red Bull was the first chance to make that statement and to earn that reputation. For sure, part of that was on the back of Earnhardt and how he inspired me.”
Ricciardo first attended a NASCAR event back in 2017 as a guest of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Chase Elliot at Texas Motor Speedway, completing a helmet swap with Dale Jr. His first year with McLaren will be the eighth season he has carried the number three on his car in F1.