Certain events transcend a specific moment in time and instantly become something larger. Every motorsports fan, for example, remembers the day when Dale Earnhardt died. While it was certainly jarring to watch the news unfold on TV, things were even more painful in person. Just ask Dale Earnhardt Jr. about that.
During a recent experience on the I Am Athlete podcast, Junior recalled that fateful February day and shared some incredibly candid memories of heading to the hospital in search of his father.
Dale Earnhardt met his tragic end during the 2001 Daytona 500
During his time on the track, Earnhardt cultivated an air of invincibility; the Intimidator wasn’t someone who would ever back down from a challenge. Unfortunately, that public persona couldn’t prevent the tragedy that unfolded in February 2001.
As NASCAR fans will all surely remember, Earnhardt and Sterling Marlin were doing battle during the final lap of the Daytona 500. While the Intimidator was no stranger to trading paint, he lost control of his car. He crashed into the wall head-first, also taking out Ken Schrader in the process.
While the rest of the cars crossed the finish line, Earnhardt and Schrader’s vehicles ended up in the infield grass. The Intimidator, however, didn’t get out or even open up his window net.
As the racing world later learned, Earnhardt had fractured his skull during the crash. He died at age 49.
Dale Jr. remembers heading to the hospital in search of his father
On that fateful day, Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished the Daytona 500 in second place. After crossing the finish line, however, he had something more important on his mind.
“After the race is over, we’ve got to drive back around the track one time to come down the pits,” Junior explained on the I Am Athlete podcast. “And I seen his car sitting there in the grass and all the ambulances and the trucks around it, the steam and the smoke, and just the picture didn’t look good.”
Earnhardt Jr. headed to the infield care center, assuming that, even if his dad needed to go to the hospital, he’d have to stop there first. While he couldn’t find the Intimidator, he did see Schrader. The look in his fellow driver’s eyes told him something was wrong.
As you might imagine, things got even more painful once Dale Jr. arrived at the hospital.
“I walked into the emergency entrance, you know, just a big, busy space, and I was just like trying to figure out where to go to get to him,” Earnhardt continued. “The first room on the left is the emergency room, and I turn in there to look. There were like 20 people over the top of him working on him. I just exploded. This noise just comes out of you. All this pain and this sadness, and I turned and ran the other direction to the first person I recognized, which was a guy named J.R. Rhodes, who was a PR guy. And I just grabbed him, and I just screamed.”
Later that evening, the gravity of the situation hit Junior. “I went back to the track and I sat in my bus,” he concluded. “And that’s when I realized. I was like, ‘My daddy ain’t here.'”
Thankfully, Dale Earnhardt knew how his son really felt about him
When someone dies, let alone in dies in tragic circumstances, it can seem impossible to find any positives. Thankfully for the Earnhardts, though, Dale Jr. got to share a heartfelt moment with his father shortly before that fateful day.
As Junior once told Danica Patrick, he wanted to write a magazine piece about what his father meant to him. Before anything could be published, though, it had to be cleared by the Intimidator himself.
“And he takes it, and he reads it, and he stands up, and he starts walking around reading it,” Dale Jr. recalled. “And it’s only, you know, about a page. And he stops at the end, and he takes a minute. And he says, ‘You know, we never tell each other how we feel about each other, but in reading this, I know exactly how you feel.”
After Junior explained that he was simply telling the truth, his father responded with perhaps the most significant words of all. “I’m so glad you did this,” Earnhardt Sr. said. “I’m so glad you shared this with me.”
Within a year of that conversation, Dale Earnhardt died.