Wednesday, January 6, 2010

“What If?” Part I: What If Dale Earnhardt Had Not Died?

The replay is infamous, the scene now permanently etched into the memories of NASCAR fans young and old from coast to coast. NASCAR President Mike Helton’s words, “We’ve lost Dale Earnhardt” still seem eerie nine years later.

February 18th, 2001 was the day Dale Earnhardt went from being a star to a legend and a folk hero when he died in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500 – NASCAR’s biggest race at a track he had mastered.

These next few weeks, The Racing Tool will be exploring some of NASCAR’s “What If’s?” beginning with the death of Dale Earnhardt, wondering what would be different if The Intimidator was still around.

The biggest result to come out of his death was an advance in safety. The head restraints, seat designs, helmet designs, SAFER barrier, and eventually the COT were advances all prompted by the death of NASCAR’s biggest star in order to prevent it from happening to someone else.

Without Dale’s untimely demise, would these advances still have happened?

In part, yes.

First of all, the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barrier began development at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1998. While it was sponsored by the Indy Racing League and not NASCAR, track owners across the country would have eventually seen the sense in installing them, though maybe not quite as rapidly as they actually did.

The trickier part to predict would be the head restraints and the COT. Let’s start with the head restraints.

Before Earnhardt’s death, a few drivers used a head restraint, such as the Head and Neck Support (HANS) device. But, using an old fashioned low-backed seat sans HANS device and an open-faced helmet were symbols of machismo – drivers trying to show how tough they were; this was NASCAR after all, not the girly-men Indy Racing League. Drivers taking these safety precautions were largely chided.

The Car of Tomorrow (COT) was first track-tested in 2005, first raced in 2007, and adopted full-time in 2008 and was a project directly related to overhauling the old car in the name of safety. It had a wider and taller greenhouse (or cockpit), repositioned fuel and oil lines to prevent fires getting to the driver, foam in the door panels, and moved the drivers seat closer to the center, all in an attempt to keep the impact energy away from the driver.

So, would these advances have taken place as fast, if at all, without the death of Dale Earnhardt?

Eventually, yes, because someone else would have died.

In the year prior to 2001, NASCAR lost three up-and-coming stars: Truck Series driver Tony Roper, Nationwide Series and soon-to-be Cup Rookie Adam Petty, and Cup Series driver Kenny Irwin.

All three drivers died in a similar impact and a similar injury to Earnhardt: a basilar skull fracture.

The 2000 season took three drivers from us. The first race of the 2001 season took Earnhardt. Who was next?

The death of three relatively little-known drivers wasn’t enough to have a big push for safety; it took the death of Dale Earnhardt. If not him, it would have been someone else.

Dale Jarrett? Rusty Wallace? Ricky Rudd? Bill Elliott? All four were popular veterans known for their old-school antics – and driver safety equipment – much like Earnhardt.

Even with a HANS device, driver Jerry Nadeau suffered a career-ending injury at Richmond in 2003. Had it not been for that HANS device, Nadeau may have been the next one to be taken from us.

These safety advances would have happened eventually. Fortunately, no driver in NASCAR’s top three national series has died since that fateful February day in 2001.

Now, aside from safety…

In 2010, Earnhardt would almost certainly be retired. He died a month short of his 50th birthday. What might he be doing today?

He would still be running his team, Dale Earnhardt Inc., and it might still be a powerhouse.

He might even be broadcasting – Darrell Waltrip is pretty much a lock with FOX, but Dale’s personality was a near perfect fit for a broadcasting position, perhaps with ESPN or TNT.

And, in 2010, though he might have been retired, Dale Earnhardt would almost certainly still be the sport’s leading man.

-David Dubczak.


  1. yes the death of dale sr did alot to nascar, but to basie the changes of nascar solo on his death would be COST and this time it took a truel hero from us. you think of all the other guys like Jr, Stwart, Newman that come from backgrounds of racing wide open and not holding back of course youll ask "what if". I mean for crying out loud look @ newman @ talladega his car got hit from the 99 car and made issues for nascar and then to go there a 2nd time and flip nascar needs to relook @ there safty program from as far as I can see it, there alot of work that needs to still be done.

  2. And the sport would be in MUCH better shape than it is now.

  3. Dale wouldn't have been in the broadcast booth. His voice was influential but he wasn't a big mouth like DW.

    I think Dale would've tried to go out on top. He could have easily finished top 5 in points in 2001 and probably would have gone until 2003. He really wanted that 8th championship. I remember reading somewhere he wanted jeff burton to take over the #3 (burton did make it RCR, though)

    DEI would be a powerhouse. Perhaps he would've merged with RCR.

    I would have been cool to see Dale take a management position in NASCAR itself. His blunt, no bs attitude would have kept the series out of the trouble it is in now.

  4. I'm sorry...I am NOT a big lover of the "what ifs"...Earnhardt died..just like my dad and mom Lincoln did..Martin Luther King...John F. Kennedy...John Lennon...Anna Nicole Smith...Johnny first husband...and my best friend Chris... But..for me to try and "predict" what would have happened and what they would have done or said is silly..useless..and sometimes disrespectful. I agree..NASAR came along way in safety with the death of Earnhardt..but that is IT..all she wrote..and should be the end of the "what ifs".

  5. If Earnhardt was still around, we for sure would not have this car. He would have refused to drive it and made sure everyone knew he did not like it, compared to these other pansey drivers. Sure, say that 3 people died in 2000 but who died AFTER Earnhardt? Like you said, the HANS and SAFER barrier were already being developed. This car was not needed.

    Nobody is forcing these drivers to do what they do. Risk is part of the game. deal with it.

  6. Dale Earnhardt will be missed for a LONG time to come. I wish that crash on February 18, 2001 would never had happen. But nothing can change that. I hope to god once the 2011 Daytona 500 comes around that it would be a Dale Earnhardt kind of race. Dale Jr. in the #3 for RCR, everyone having the #3 decal on the side of EVERY car out there. That was sad sad day. R.I.P. Dale, for3ver a fan!!

  7. Wether you loved him or hated him - you have to realize everything he has done for nascar in life ans sadly in death. I too think he would have won that eighth championship. And everyone always thought Teresa was the brains behind the MAN - I think not. I'm most certain his teams wouldnt have had to merge with another and struggle for sponsors. They would have stood in line to sponsor those cars because they belonged to the one and only Intimidator!!!

  8. Well, I am going to be purposesly trite here and say, "if Senior hadn't died, NASCAR would have had to kill him." NASCAR needs its legends and it got one. Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison just didn't fit the bill. It had to be the BIG ONE. So, NASCAR got its "dream death." Dale going out like Richard Petty or DW in a flurry of champions' provisionals was just not gonna do it for NASCAR's marketing machine.

  9. if dale earnhardt hadent died i am sure that all the safety devices would have been put in the cars just not as quik as they did.

  10. if he had not have died he would have raced as long as he could have he already had one bad wreck if he still had that but didnt die he might have thought of retirement but he wouldent have. GO DALE EARNHARDENT 3