Ten years ago I was living in Winter Haven , Florida and was very excited when I was able to score a couple of tickets to the Daytona 500 from some long forgotten vendor. I took my then 3 year old son with me and we had seats about 15 rows up directly in front of what would become known as the Earnhardt Tower after the tragic event that occurred that day.We left our house that morning armed with a back pack full of snacks and a cooler. I had been purchasing lots of diecast Nascar vehicles for my son and he brought three with him that day. They were a #3 Earnhardt, a #20 Stewart and a #12 Mayfield. He was fully trained in all things Nascar, if you asked him what he thougt of Tony Stewart he would tell you “He’s a punk!”
We left at 5 AM as I wanted to avoid the traffic. Avoid it we did as we arrived at the speedway shortly after 6:15 AM. It was a cool morning and we walked around the trailers and exhibits taking pictures long since misplaced.
We were probably the first people in our section eating chips and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for breakfast. It warmed up quite a bit by race time and of course the stands filled to capacity. Since we were sitting so low, no one sat down the whole race. Everybody was standing on the cold metal benches. Because the age of three offers a distinct disadvantage for seeing a race while every one is standing, I had to hold him the whole race.
I had a bad feeling about that day that was tough to explain. I felt something tragic was going to happen. When Stewart flipped his car on the back stretch on lap 175 and caused the race to be delayed, I thought maybe that was it.
There were wildfires burning in Florida at the time that was affecting visibility and traffic along the I-4 corridor. I decided we should leave to beat the traffic. My son slept the whole way home in bumper to bumper traffic. The trip that took an hour and fifteen minutes to get there took four and half hours to get home. When I was pulling off the freeway about half an hour from the house, they made the announcement over the radio that Earnhardt was gone.
I had never cried at the death of a celebrity before and I haven’t since, but I did that day.
It was like Don Maclean in American Pie, the music died.
Racing has never been the same. That no one has died since Dale because of the safety improvements they made due to his death is an admirable accomplishment. But I think Dale would hate the Car of Tomorrow and the race for the chase format.
That July, I was witness to what may have been the greatest moment in a live sporting event I have ever witnessed, as Dale Jr. won the first race at Daytona since his father’s death. The electricity and the excitement in the air was palpable the last few laps and I still get goose bumps thinking about it.
I am glad we left early that day asÂ Dale’s car came to rest in the infield directly in front of where our seats where. My son was too young to understand what happened that day. Maybe so was I though as to this day I still don’t understand it.