April 29, 1951 – February 18, 2001
By Kevin Fitzpatrick
Findadeath.com friend Jim Williams sends us this:
Here are three photos of the interior of Dale Earnhardt’s car after the accident. These photos show, not only a very bloody interior (the blood left on the seat clearly shows that Dale had a massive hemorrhage after the crash, and still hasn’t even dried!) but also clearly shows the dumped “broken” seat restraint. These photos were taken the next day by the county medical examiner.
If you post these images, caution your visitors to the graphic nature of them.
So there you go. Consider yourselves warned. Oh, and enjoy. Thanks, Jim – S
Stock car racing and the South go together like fried chicken and Pepsi. So when the greatest driver the sport’s ever known was killed in a spectacular crash, the entire Southern portion of the United States acted as if Elvis had died. Well he did. But instead of keeling over alone on his throne, Dale Earnhardt bought it with a TV camera mounted over his shoulder and millions watching him wipe out and die in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Sports stars get killed in their prime all the time. Just lately it’s been Bobby Phills of the Charlotte Hornets, U.S. Open champ Payne Stewart and the Kansas City Chiefs’ Derrick Thomas. But the 7-time Winston Cup Champion did it live on FOX TV.
The heroic comparisons started before his body was even cold. Pick your metaphor, sportscasters threw around that the 49 year-old Earnhardt’s death was like Michael Jordan dying in a Bulls playoff game or Mark McGwire biting it while still in his home run chase. The Southern media held him up to be Babe Ruth in a Monte Carlo.
The Feb. 18 crash of “The Intimidator” looked almost routine by NASCAR standards, especially considering what had happened just minutes earlier. After nearly three wild hours of side-by-side racing, a 19-car crash sent Tony Stewart’s car hurtling skyward, flames shooting out of the engine. Bobby Labonte’s car was on fire, too, and minutes later, the garages looked like a junkyard.
That pushed the finale deeper into the afternoon, turning the 500 into a 26-lap sprint for the checkered flag.
As the drivers passed under the white flag that signifies the beginning of the final lap, Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had begun to separate themselves from a pack that included Earnhardt, Kenny Schrader, Sterling Marlin and a hard-charging Rusty Wallace.
Most fans at the track must have thought Earnhardt was getting ready for one final run, a chance to slingshot past the two leaders and win his second Daytona 500.
Here is a photograph of Dale and his wife Teresa, just before his fatal run.
Then again, maybe not. Observers could see Earnhardt was blocking the other cars from getting near the other two cars on his team, part of his sponsorship dollars ahead of him.
Half a lap passed, then two-thirds, and the famous black Chevrolet hadn’t made its move. Racing for third place? What was the strategy? Still, it kind of made sense. Ahead of Earnhardt were his two employees — Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip, the hard-luck driver who’d never won a Daytona 500 in 15 years of trying.
As Earnhardt appeared to try to block the drivers behind him, his car drifted ever so slightly toward the bottom of the track, where Marlin was holding his line as they entered Turn 3.
Cue music. Contact ensued. Wham-o.
Earnhardt’s Monte Carlo skidded quickly downward onto the apron of the track, fishtailing. As the cars rounded the bend, the nose of his Chevy tilted toward the outside wall and Schrader plowed into its passenger side. Earnhardt slammed headfirst into the wall at Turn 4 at about 180 mph. He probably died instantly.
As No. 3 slid down toward the infield and came to rest, Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. zoomed toward the checkered flag. Television cameras left the wreck behind to pan toward the finish.
Waltrip won, but didn’t know his boss was dead. As Waltrip drove by the smoking wreck on his victory lap, doctors were reaching into the wreckage of Earnhardt’s car trying to save a life already lost. Moments later, Waltrip was 2,000 feet away basking in his victory. In the infield, firefighters cut into the wreckage so Earnhardt’s body could be removed and placed in the meat wagon.
Read the accident report, from www.thesmokinggun.com
Minutes later, Waltrip stood on a tower high above the track for more interviews. This was one of the few places that offered a view of the entire scene. Before Waltrip took the first question, he knew he was no longer the story.
“My heart is hurting right now,” he said. “I would rather be any place right this moment than here. It’s so painful.”
As Dale Beaver, the Winston Cup chaplain, headed to Victory Lane to offer a celebratory handshake to Waltrip, frantic word came that he was needed in the infield care center. Beaver went directly to Halifax Hospital to join Earnhardt and his family. He was present when doctors pronounced Earnhardt dead, consoling his wife, Teresa, and son, Dale Jr.
A few fans and the press waited outside the hospital’s trauma unit. Some bystanders saw a maroon hearse back into an emergency room entrance. Hospital staff held up sheets in front of the hearse’s windows to block the public’s view. About five minutes later the hearse left, led by two cops on motorcycles. The car was covered by a tarp, and taken to a garage. (thank you to Gerald for that photo)
The night of the crash, Dr. Steve Bohannon, director of emergency medical services at Daytona International Speedway, said there were no visible signs of trauma to Earnhardt’s face after the crash and that he felt the fact that Earnhardt wore an open-faced helmet did not contribute to his injuries. Five days later, however, he changed his theory, saying that a closed-face helmet of the type worn by almost every other Winston Cup driver might have made a difference.
There was a candlelight vigil held that night.
“If he had protection over his chin in this area of contact, the forces would have been different to his body and he would have a different pattern of injuries,” Bohannon said. “Certainly in this particular case a full-faced helmet would have been of benefit.”
It was discovered that a seat belt had broken. Bohannon said that had the belt not broken, Earnhardt might not have been killed in the crash. Here is a view from the driver seat.
(thank you to Gerald for that photo)
“It appears this did allow his body to move forward and it appears that probably his chin struck the steering column in such a way that the forces were transmitted up the mandible on each side to fracture the base of his skull. The chest hitting would account for the rib fractures.”
There were two Earnhardt services. The first was a private family funeral on Feb. 21 in Kannapolis, N.C., about 27 miles from Charlotte. Earnhardt reportedly was buried following a service attended only by his family and closest friends. Nobody will say where, or even if, the auto racing legend was laid to rest in Kannapolis.
In the Kannapolis Independent Tribune, an article quoting an unnamed Earnhardt family member, added to the mystery. “I can’t make a statement on behalf of the family,” the person said, “but we did not attend a burial service for Dale Earnhardt in Kannapolis on Wednesday.”
Earnhardt was publicly eulogized Feb. 22 in a strangely muted affair at Charlotte’s Calvary Church. There were flowers and there was music and there was a large crowd, but there didn’t seem to be enough flowers and there wasn’t enough music and there certainly weren’t enough people. There was almost nothing in Calvary Church connecting the service to a seven-time Winston Cup champion.
No pictures, memorabilia or references to his storied career save for a red, white and black floral arrangement in the shape of “3” near the pulpit.
The massive church,
which can hold as many as 5,800 people, was host to approximately 4,000 on Feb. 22, and that not-so-full house witnessed a ceremony that was almost jarringly brief and surprisingly bereft of depth or color. The service was broadcast live on FOX Sports as 45 TV satellite trucks beamed reports across the country.
UPDATE MARCH 2001
Findadeath.com friend Julie sends this: For the record the picture does not do justice to the size and beauty of this church. It is HUGE.
As you can see it was taken from across a roadway so that I could get it all in the picture. The back and the sides are just as big as this front shot looks. It really is a beautiful sight.
Earnhardt’s children sat in the front row. Taylor Nicole, the youngest at 12, entered with Earnhardt’s widow, Teresa, accompanied by a state trooper, and sat with sons Dale Jr., 26, and Kerry, 31, and daughter Kelley, 28. This being the South, you had to have country music stars there, and they got Randy Owens, Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn. Representing NASCAR were drivers Terry and Bobby Labonte, Jerry Nadeau, Bobby and Donnie Allison, and Sterling Marlin, who had received hate mail and death threats from fans who blamed him for the fatal crash.
After an introduction by John Cozart, pastor of the family’s church in Mooresville, race chaplain Beaver gave the eulogy. It was sandwiched by two songs from Owens, a singer in the group Alabama.
About 20 minutes into the service, Earnhardt’s widow made her way to the podium, apparently to say something to the crowd. Instead, clutching her hands to her chest, it was all she could do to whisper two barely audible “thank yous” before exiting the church on the arm of her state trooper. And like that, it was all over in 22 minutes.
In the days following the memorial service, there were press conferences that NASCAR held to detail the investigation. The broken seat belt story was trotted out. Dale Jr. said he’d continue to race and doesn’t blame anyone for his father’s crash. A special Earnhardt sticker was unveiled that was to be slapped on all stock cars. The Feb. 25 race at Rockingham wasn’t postponed, and Dale Jr. was in the starting lineup. There’s a saying in the stock car racing world: “Keep the shiny side up, dirty side down.” Uh-huh.
Kevin Fitzpatrick is a New York City writer. You can visit his web site, www.nycbp.com
Thank you Kevin.
News from Findadeath.com friend SDS: If I heard correctly, FOXSPORTS NET (who broadcasted the Dale Earnhardt memorial service from Charlotte last week) sold/gave the broadcast rights to the service to Theresa Earnhardt. She allowed broadcast of the service nationwide under the following stipulations . . . . 1) no close-ups of the family were allowed 2) FOX, nor any other of the local TV stations locally in town (as well I’m sure nationwide) weren’t allowed to use footage from the service in their reports (though afterwards, they as well as NASCAR fans from throughout the country who were waiting outside were allowed to enter the church and take pictures) and 3) there will never be a rerun of the service on the air since she assumed those rights. Though I’m sure some Net savvy guy will try to set up an Earnhardt website and broadcast it on the Net at some point . . . . .
The Smoking Gun.com has contacted me, and told me that they have Dale’s autopsy report online. You can see it here
NEW INFORMATION AUGUST 2001:
Kevin Fitzpatrick tells me that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is cashing in on his old man’s death. he’s given LONG interviews about it to MTV, Rolling Stone, Playboy (all the classy places).
Also, In June 2001, Attorneys seeking access to the autopsy photos attacked a new Florida law that seals such pictures, telling a judge that it is vague and unconstitutional. The law makes it a felony to release autopsy photos without a judge’s permission. Previously, such photos had been a public record.
“The photographs are humiliating, disgusting and negative,” Teresa Earnhardt said. “That could be nothing but harmful and painful to anyone involved with my family, my company, our fans, anyone.”
The Independent Florida Alligator, the newspaper that serves the University of Florida community in Gainesville, and Websitecity.com were seeking access to the photos, arguing that a public review could prevent future racing fatalities.
Circuit Judge Joseph Will said releasing the photos would cause harm to Earnhardt’s family. Will rejected the arguments calling them “incredibly thin excuses” for invading the families privacy.
“The [newspaper’s and Web site’s] argument was a constitutional shell game,” said Parker Thompson, an Earnhardt lawyer.
The Alligator argued the images should be made public to show whether investigators did an adequate job of determining what killed Earnhardt.
Websitecity.com owner Michael Uribe said he wants to view the photos to prove the Volusia County medical examiner’s office did a poor job on Earnhardt’s autopsy. Uribe already has posted autopsy photos of drivers Rodney Orr and Neil Bonnett on his Web site.
Relatives of the dead drivers testified they were devastated by the posting of the photos on the Web site. “I can’t sleep at night,” said Orr’s father. “I lay down and I see him on the table there naked. That’s what I see.”
Added November 2003,
Just wanna drop you a line to correct you in your saying that Dale Earnhardt Jr is “cashing in on his old man’s death” by giving interviews to Rolling Stone and MTV. He doesn’t get to choose what the interviewers ask him, and most of them do ask them about his father’s death. It’s a big part of his life, and he is living in his father’s shadow, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. He is definitely not “cashing in.” So I would appreciate it if you re-write that statement. Thank You.