Had Dale Earnhardt been a rookie instead of a veteran of NASCAR Cup Series driver, maybe he would have been too focused on the next day’s Daytona 500 to act as a tour guide. But “The Intimidator” was beginning his 23rd season.
Although the season-opening Daytona 500 is NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl, the 43rd running of “The Great American Race” on Feb. 18, 2001, was going to be just another day at the office. After all, Earnhardt had made up for years of disappointment by finally winning at Daytona three years earlier, so the pressure was off.
Thus, with Fox Sports, which televised the race, sending popular NFL analyst Terry Bradshaw to town to do a short segment with the legendary driver, Earnhardt was happy to show the retired quarterback around and have some fun.
“He was strong, but he was a teddy bear,” Bradshaw told Yahoo! Sports writer Jay Busbee, who wrote a book on Earnhardt. “He was so frigging nice. I knew absolutely nothing about racing, but he showed me a respect I didn’t feel I deserved.”
More often than not, that is the sort of treatment NASCAR drivers will give “civilians” even if they’re not Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Fans who park their RVs on the infield for the weekend at the big tracks often mingle with drivers finishing up morning jogs or hanging out near their own trailers.
In the case of Bradshaw, however, Earnhardt wasn’t above having some fun. Fox Sports had recently signed a six-year, billion-dollar extension to televise NASCAR races. Knowing how to repay a favor, the NASCAR people arranged for Bradshaw to serve as grand marshal of the Daytona 500, which would add to the pre-race hype.
The honor wouldn’t require Bradshaw to do much more than give the ceremonial command to the drivers to start their engines, but Earnhardt wanted their guest to have the full racing experience. Fifteen years later, Bradshaw still held vivid memories of riding the superspeedway oval with Earnhardt.
“We were flying! He’s there describing turn 1, and I’m going, ‘Oh my God …’ Then we’re coming around turn 3, and he says, ‘There’s going to be a big bump,’ and then we’re right up against the wall, and then we come flying down pit lane and burning out in the grass.
“He’s celebrating like we won the Daytona 500, and I’m wetting my britches!”Terry Bradshaw
Said David Hill, the visionary president of Fox Sports at the time: “We were predicting great things for these two. We were going to have Terry on NASCAR, we were going to bring Dale in to talk NFL. You could see that these two guys had become best friends instantly. Dale fit in perfectly with what we were doing at Fox.”
Tragically, that became an impossibility a day later because of one of the most stunning developments in NASCAR history. With teammate Michael Waltrip racing toward the checkered flag, Earnhardt found himself caught up in a wreck behind the leaders and hit the outside wall hard.
Though not a head-on collision, the blow generated an estimated 60 G’s that threw Earnhardt around the interior of the car, causing a basilar skull fracture that killed him.
Twenty years later, the racing world looks back on the accident as the one that arguably changed safety to a degree that no previous tragedies had. Most notably, NASCAR made the HANS (Head and Neck Support) device and closed-face helmets mandatory. Earnhardt had eschewed both innovations.
Bradshaw never got to continue the budding friendship with one of the most accomplished drivers ever.
“You meet a lot of people you don’t connect with, a lot of people you don’t get or don’t get you,” Bradshaw told Busbee. “Nobody would have put us together, but we connected somehow.”