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The day the track stood still

THATSRACIN.COM OPINION

Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011

I was in the press box when Dale Earnhardt hit the wall on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

I saw him crash. But like almost everybody else at Daytona International Speedway, I watched Michael Waltrip and Earnhardt’s son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., race for the victory.

After Waltrip crossed the line I picked up my binoculars and looked down through the enormous glass windows at Earnhardt’s black Chevrolet. Nobody inside appeared to move.

Earnhardt had been running third and, sensing he was too far back to win, turned offensive lineman, blocking for Dale Jr. and Waltrip. They were his drivers.

Trying to avoid the block, Sterling Marlin appeared to tap Earnhardt’s Chevrolet. Earnhardt fishtailed and hit the wall head-on at about 150 mph. Kenny Schrader then hit Earnhardt. The famous black 3 drifted into the grass at the bottom of the banking near Turn 4.

The wreck had not been a spectacular, end-over-end, restrictor-plate special. It was succinct, one driver hitting the wall.

Schrader ran to the car and frantically signaled paramedics. There was still no sign Earnhardt had moved.

A blue tarp was placed over the car.

That’s when we knew Earnhardt was dead.

An ambulance took him to Halifax Medical Center.

Ed Hardin, a columnist at the Greensboro News-Record, and I walked. The hospital is two miles from the track and driving would have taken too long.

West International Speedway Boulevard was jammed with post-race traffic. Drivers on the eight-lane road honked repeatedly. They didn’t honk at other drivers. They honked to prove, I guess, they knew how to work their horns.

I’ll always remember the sound. It was frivolous. They didn’t understand.

Ed and I reached the hospital, and not seeing media or anybody else, we walked in the door. We saw a security guard and told him who we were. He directed us down a long hallway.

When we stopped we heard people, men mostly. Some wore suits and some wore team uniforms. They talked in monotones and hushed voices.

We saw Darrell Waltrip, older brother of Michael and former race car star who called his first race that afternoon for FOX, hug a smaller man.

“We were going to grow old together,” Waltrip said.

Earnhardt already had been pronounced dead. But visitors lingered in a hallway and in the hospital lobby. They weren’t ready to let go.

Ed and I stayed only a few minutes. We shouldn’t have been there. We walked out. The security guard had made a mistake.

When we saw him he asked, “What were you doing back there?”

By now the media had arrived. Outside, the hospital a crowd had gathered. There were reporters, TV trucks and fans in black Earnhardt garb. The fans stood red-eyed and desperate, pleading for information.

Ed and I walked past them and returned to the press box.

While we were gone a fan had started a bonfire near the fourth turn, and fans huddled there.

The flag was at half-staff.

I wrote my column and walked with Liz Clarke, a former Observer colleague who writes for the Washington Post, to the Hilton Garden Inn. That was the first bar we could find.

The Daytona 500 week is grueling for everybody, and when it ends there’s invariably a whoosh and a celebration. But the little bar was as quiet as church.

Liz knew Earnhardt much better than I did, and she talked about him the way a friend would as the waitress delivered our first drinks.

The waitress started to walk away.

Then she stopped and said, “I’m sorry.”

Tom Sorensen: 704-358-5119

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