When Dale Earnhardt Sr. hit the outside wall in turn four on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, most watching initially believed it wasn’t a serious accident. That all changed just moments later when Earnhardt and Ken Schrader’s cars came to rest on the infield grass, Schrader exited his vehicle, and approached Earnhardt’s car. He immediately knew something was terribly wrong and frantically started waving for help.
Schrader has never discussed in detail what he saw inside the car that day. And for that, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is forever grateful. Junior shared just how much it meant to him and his family that Schrader would carry such a heavy burden for such a long time in a raw, emotional, and most memorable interview on his podcast.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. Daytona 500 crash didn’t appear to be serious
The initial reaction to Dale Earnhardt’s crash at the 2001 Daytona 500 wasn’t a reaction at all. That’s because the fans, announcers, and those watching on television were focused on one thing — the finish line. It was a battle to the finish, ironically enough, with two cars on Dale’s team driven by Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
When Waltrip narrowly edged out Junior at the checkered flag, the crowd erupted. Up in the broadcast booth, Waltrip’s brother Darrell couldn’t contain his excitement seeing his younger brother capture his first Daytona 500 crown. Tears of joy filled Waltrip’s eyes as he looked down on his brother driving down the track. When asked by broadcast partner Mike Joy if it was better than winning it himself, Waltrip emotionally responded.
“No, it’s much better. This is great,” he said, his head turning back up the track toward the accident. “I just hope Dale’s okay. I guess he’s alright, isn’t he?”
Ken Schrader shocked by what he sees inside Dale Earnhardt’s car
Moments after being released from the infield care center, reporters congregated around Ken Schrader for his reaction and what he saw inside Dale Earnhardt’s car.
“I don’t really know (about Dale). I’m not a doctor. I got the heck out of the way as soon as they got there,” Schrader said, playing down the severity of the situation. He was then asked how he was doing. “I’m fine. Just thinking about Dale and them guys.”
Since that fateful day, Schrader has repeatedly resisted talking in detail about what he saw. Instead, he’s offered up generalizations, as he did in a 2011 interview with FanHouse.
“I’m like, that was a pretty big deal, I’ll climb out and go talk to Dale. We were the only two cars in the middle of the grass, and no one was there yet, so I just checked on him,” Schrader said. “I never thought (he might be dead). There was no instinct or anything, no gut feeling. It was just tough seeing what I saw because I walked up there and took the window net down and thought he’d be happy to see that Mikey (Waltrip) won the race, but pissed off because he wrecked. I got caught off-guard with what I saw.”
Junior thanks Ken Schrader for holding secrets of his dad’s death
What Ken Schrader saw that Sunday afternoon in February 2001 when he took the net down in Dale Earnhardt’s car, no one but Schrader knows. He intends to keep it that way, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is extremely grateful for that.
Junior interviewed Schrader on his Dale Jr. Download podcast and after a lengthy conversation about his career reliving old stories, Earnhardt said it was time to talk about the “big elephant in the room.” He then revealed he had a letter he wanted to read to Schrader.
“I’ve known you a long time and a lot of time has passed since that happened,” Earnhardt Jr. read. “And you’ve been a great friend to me. You’re one of only a few to see the darkest moment for my dad. That you have intimate knowledge of those moments, you are a keeper of that delicate information. It makes me feel close to you, Kenny. I feel pain for you to have to carry that memory, but you carry it for me, you carry it for (sister) Kelley, for dad’s family, you carry it for anyone who’s ever cheered for him. It’s a secret that you’ll keep ’til your last breath. Kenny, I know you might sometimes wish you weren’t the one, but I’m glad it was you.”
When Earnhardt finished reading the letter, Schrader half-smiled as he fought back tears. It was a poignant moment and one Junior had waited to share for years. And it revealed how that tragic day in 2001, while devastating for both, had created a deeply personal bond that will last forever.