So without further ado, here's Doug Smith's post about No. 3 and what has happened to his sport...
"So, who you gonna pull for when he's not racing any more?"
This is gonna be very much a free for all and may not follow a lot of structure but I've been planning this for a while and been beating myself up all day about what I wanted to write and how I wanted to write it so basically this is as raw and unpolished as it can be.
The question that's in the title of this note was a question posed to me on or about February 9, 2001 by a guy named Chris Stanfield in the RCHS library. We had been working on a project for class and we needed all the computers in the library for the class. Needless to say, I had other things on my mind besides school and today, I wanted to see the practice speeds that had been coming out of Daytona in preps for that year's Daytona 500. Chris was talking with me as I looked up the speeds as well as the full Daytona schedule for that week. He saw me looking specifically for Dale Sr and Dale Jr.'s practice speeds. Just making conversation he asked me was I a Sr. or Jr. fan. I explained I was a Sr. fan but I also pulled for Jr. for obvious reasons. He then out of the blue asked me what was I gonna do when Dale Sr. was no longer racing. I thought little of this, I just simply answered "I don't know. I guess I'll pull for Dale Jr." Little did I know how much of an impact that simple question would have less than 10 days later.
On February 17th, after watching the then Busch series race and the IROC race, my dad asked me who I thought would win the 500. I told him I believed Michael Waltrip would win it, Dale Jr would finish 2nd and Dale Sr. would finish 3rd. I had no evidence for this, it was just simply what came to mind at that moment.
The day of the 500 itself, February 18th, 2001, started off on a bit of a sour note as I woke up to see that longtime Braves great Eddie Matthews had died that morning. He would regrettably be forgotten in the aftermath of the events to come later that day. The broadcast began on Fox at 12 Noon that day. It was the first race Fox had ever broadcast. During the pre-race segment, they interviewed many drivers and Dale Earnhardt was among them. He finished up his interview with a quote that, like Chris' question to me earlier, meant little at the time but would later be seared into my memory. His quote was "you're gonna see something you've never seen before today on Fox."
I didn't watch much of the race itself due to Directv not carrying local channels at that time. The interviews I saw were at my grandparent's house where they had basic cable which meant they got local channels. I figured I would read the results and watch highlights later and since my dad was recording it on vhs tape at my grandparents and if Dale won or anything big happened I'd watch the tape. This was up until my dad came in from playing golf around 3:30 pm. He came in the house and asked me had I seen the big wreck that happened. I asked him what he was talking about. He said there'd been a huge wreck with about 25 laps to go and that there was at least one car that flipped. I asked did Dale get through and he said he didn't know. So I went to my room, disconnected the Directv box so I could hopefully get a decent reception on Fox 8 which I managed to actually get through the antenna on the roof of the house. Much better than I usually got. Anyway, I saw the crash itself and watched as Tony Stewart flew like a leaf and 19 other cars hit each other like bumper cars in the crash that Nascar fans usually refer to as "the big one", a common occurence at the plate tracks(Daytona and Talladega). My question was soon answered as they did a rundown of the field and I saw that Dale had gotten through the crash so I was relieved.
After the race resumed, I watched the last 20 or so laps of the race and then came the white flag. Waltrip was in 1st, Dale Jr. in 2nd and Dale Sr. in 3rd, as I had predicted the day before. They come around turn 3, we see a wide shot that pans left as it follows Mikey and Jr. out of turn 4. The camera changes angles and we see in the upper right part of the screen 2 cars crashing. All I could see as to who was in it was a big white 3 and I then silently muttered some obscenity after seeing he'd crashed. But Mikey had won the race and Dale Jr. had gotten 2nd so it was a nice finish. It was Waltrip's first career win in almost 15 years of racing in the then Winston Cup series.
The camera then switches to 2 crashed cars in the grass area just out of turn 4. One of them is Dale's car and one of them is Ken Schrader's car. Schrader was then shown to walk over to Dale's drivers side to see if he was okay. He then immediately jumped back slightly and waved the paramedics over to Dale's car in an almost panic. I knew then something was really wrong. Minutes passed, no new information, simply replays of the crash. It was easy to tell by the commentator's that it wasn't good but they didn't say anything because they themselves knew nothing official at the time. More minutes passed, I told my dad that he'd crashed and I thought something was really wrong because of what I'd seen Schrader doing. I went to eat supper while watching for information about the crash and Dale's condition. After nearly 90 minutes of no new information, I knew something tragic had probably happened and I began to prepare for the worst. Finally, around 6:30 pm, after I'd gone back home, my mom called the house and told my dad that Dale was gone. It was then I flipped on the tv and saw the press conference that had taken place about 10 minutes before and Mike Helton utter those words I will never forget.
"This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements that I've ever personally had to make, but after the accident in turn 4 at the end of the Daytona 500, we've lost Dale Earnhardt."
I was empty. I really didn't know what to think or do. I had lost a childhood hero before in 1993 but it was unthinkable to think that it had happened a second time and to Dale Earnhardt of all people who many Nascar fans truly thought was invincible. The driver in 1993 I'm referring to is Davey Allison who died in July 1993 in a helicopter crash at age 32. But it had happened, Dale was gone and the emotion and sadness from that day has not left me, even 10 years to the day of this tragedy.
Dale Earnhardt's death was to me the biggest tragedy in Nascar history and is one that, as time has shown, the sport as a whole may never truly recover from. No sport to my knowledge has ever lost its biggest star in its biggest event of the season. I spoke to many people afterwards who said they didn't care about Nascar any more now that he was gone and that sentiment still runs today. Most fans at some point returned to being fans again but it's more or less universally agreed that it hasn't been the same and will never be the same as it was before this day, 10 years ago.
To answer Chris' question if he happens to read this, I did become a Dale Jr. fan for a while as well as a Kevin Harvick fan who was handpicked by Dale Sr. himself to be his successor. It's pretty much believed that had he not died, he would've likely retired at the end of the 2002 season when his last contract with RCR expired. I later fell out of favor with Dale Jr. and focused solely on Harvick which is where I stood until the end of the 2010 season when I left the sport altogether due to many stupid decisions made by the sport since 2004. It is also my considered opinion that if Dale were alive today, he would be truly disgusted to see what this former sport has degenerated into. Dale was also known to be a voice of reason among the drivers and the brass at Nascar as a whole and I truly believe that so many awful decisions that have been made in the last decade of Nascar would've never been made if Dale Earnhardt were still alive.
As we move forward in time and Dale Earnhardt becomes even more of a name and a legend in time, his death will be felt by Nascar as long as it manages to exist and the results will not be pretty. I truly believe that Nascar will continue to tumble in the eyes of American sports fans as well as racing fans altogether. Ratings and attendance at the tracks(save for the major races) have tumbled, and because of this, it's entirely possible that by 2020 maybe 2025, Nascar may not be around any more. If by then Nascar still exists, it may no longer be on television and will be seen in the same vein as pro wrestling is seen in the US which is how many traditional Nascar fans see the sport today. When I say it will be seen like pro wrestling, I mean that it will be seen as a show and simply entertainment rather than a legitimate sport and legitimate competition which as I said is how many traditional fans view what the sport has become already. In the 10 years since his death, Nascar has gone from being second only to the NFL in terms of popularity and the fastest rising spectator sport on the planet, to being the butt of a joke and being one of the few cases in history where a sports own leadership purposely angered and ran off its core fan base over a period of a few years.
Nascar could've survived and even thrived in the post-Dale Earnhardt era but in 2004, it all changed forever and the decline that began with Dale Earnhardt's death went into overdrive and the sport continues on a downward spiral to this day that can only end with either major changes in leadership or with the sport folding and since there is no one around that seems to have the pull or the voice of reason Dale Earnhardt had with the Nascar brass, the sport simply cannot and will not be saved.
It will probably never be proven decisively if my beliefs are true, but I will go to my grave believing that Dale Earnhardt's death was the beginning of the end for Nascar as a sport.
-- Doug Smith
February 18, 2011