Today’s date, February 18, is a date no devoted NASCAR fan will ever forget for as long as they live. It was 15 years ago today that Dale Earnhardt Sr. “The Intimidator,” one of the greatest NASCAR drivers in history, died at the age of 49 years old. Unbelievably it happened in a last-lap crash in the 43rd running of the Daytona 500 in Daytona Beach, Florida.
I’ll never forget the circumstances where I was when I heard the news. I’d flown in from California early that morning on assignment to cover Blooddrag, a custom car show in Palm Beach, Florida. The show promoter was a local guy named Eddy Cebreco that suggested we’d go to a little bar and grill in West Palm Beach after the show for steak sandwiches and beer. Fully aware the Daytona 500 had concluded earlier in the day I asked Eddy why there was full-sized cardboard cutout of Dale Earnhardt inside the place. Eddy replied Dale Earnhardt was building a new house around the corner, and we were in one of Dale’s local hangouts. A few moments couldn’t have passed afterward when all of a sudden a pretty blonde news lady trotted in with a TV cameraman right behind her and the two started filming next to Dale’s cardboard cutout. Simultaneously the news of Dale Earnhardt’s fate appeared on every TV screen in the joint.
Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s untimely death on February 18, 2001 made him the fourth NASCAR driver to die within a nine-month period and moved NASCAR to mandate the use of head-and-neck restraints.