n February 18, 2001, Dale Earnhardt hit a wall, and American motorsport was forever changed.
Earnhardt was a legend. His “Garage Mahal” in Mooresville, NC, was a pilgrimage site. Over 17 million watched as his #3 car made light contact with Sterling Marlin, collided with Ken Schrader as he tried to regain control, and smashed into a wall at 160 miles per hour on the final turn of the final lap. His death was a collective trauma.
When the New York Times announced the crash on its front page the next day, though, the headline didn’t refer to him by name. Instead, it called him “Stock Car Star.” Editors did not think it was safe to assume readers would recognize the sport’s most beloved hero.
By 2001, such northern disdain was already out of date. Driving fast in an oval was no provincial pastime; NASCAR had gone national. Its tracks seated more fans than the largest football stadiums. Its ratings surpassed those of Major League Baseball in some regions, and it was poised to surpass the other “Big Four” American sports leagues, the NHL, NBA, and NFL. In fact, NASCAR had just signed an unprecedented $2.4 billion television contract. The 2001 Daytona 500 was the first race to be aired under it.
These modernizing forces accelerated after Earnhardt’s death, and partly because of it. The crash marked the moment when NASCAR undertook a deliberate transformation to make itself more commercially appealing, more scientifically managed, and less distinctively Southern—the opposite of what Earnhardt stood for. We are living with the consequences today.
The stereotype of NASCAR as a redneck sport contains a grain of truth. American stock car racing originated with bootleggers in the Carolina Piedmont, running moonshine and dodging the revenue man. Early races took place on dirt tracks, and with no formal organization the rules could be anarchic. In 1947, in an effort to bring order to the chaos, a gas-station owner corralled a group of race promoters in a Daytona Beach hotel bar to draw up a uniform set of rules and a governing structure. The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing was born. Its first race was held at Charlotte, NC, in 1949, on a dirt track. Asphalt would come a year later in the first race at Darlington, SC. The sport’s earliest icons were recovered moonshiners from the region like “the Last American Hero” Junior Johnson.
Dale Earnhardt was a product of this rough-and-tumble era. He grew up in Kannapolis, a textile town in the North Carolina Piedmont—the name is Greek for “city of looms.” He dropped out of high school in ninth grade and worked odd jobs around town, including as a mechanic and a welder. In his twenties, he later said, his family “probably should have been on welfare. We didn’t have money to buy groceries.” He raced as an amateur, working on his cars in the garage in his mother’s back yard. He lived in a trailer next door.
Earnhardt’s appeal was not just his humble background but the gruff persona that it formed. Compare him to fellow NASCAR legend Richard Petty, who is tied with Earnhardt for the most championships of all time (7). Both had fathers who were drivers, but Petty descended from NASCAR royalty. Lee Petty was a successful driver and the sport’s first three-time champion. Ralph Earnhardt’s success was limited to the dirt track races of the Carolinas. By NASCAR standards, Richard Petty was clean-cut—a father of four married for nearly fifty years. Dale Earnhardt had two divorces before the age of twenty-five, and for years he couldn’t pay child support. He was a gambler, often borrowing a few hundred dollars on a Thursday to buy tires and parts for his races on Friday and Saturday, betting that he would win enough to pay off his debts by Monday.
The men’s nicknames indicate their divergent personalities. Dubbed “the King,” Richard Petty was the quintessential carburetor cowboy. He happily mingled with fans and signed autographs, always wearing his trademark cowboy hat with a plume of rooster feathers in the front. Dale Earnhardt was “the Intimidator” and “the Man in Black.” He was standoffish. Petty was friendly with the media and became a broadcaster himself in retirement. Dale was deliberately antagonistic toward reporters, known for literally stepping on their toes when they interviewed him.
These personality differences were reflected in their driving. Petty dominated the sport for years thanks to an impressive pit crew and a more conservative racing style that made a deliberate push for the lead in the final laps of a race. Earnhardt was aggressive. He took his lead early and either drove past competitors or bumped them out of the way. This delighted some fans and infuriated others. One sent an anonymous death threat against Dale (“you fucking people won’t do anything about his dirty driving so someone else will have to”) that the FBI took seriously enough to assign a protective detail to the Budweiser 500 at Watkins Glen and the Miller High Life 500 at Pocono in 1987. Dale didn’t mind the haters. As he often said, “Boos on Sunday means money on Monday.”
In fact, the very incident that earned him his lasting nickname, “The Intimidator,” alienated as much as it endeared. It was the 1987 All-Star Race in Charlotte, known then simply as “The Winston,” an exhibition race for the top recent race winners. Victory didn’t count toward the championship; only money and pride were on the line. Earnhardt had been in a heated battle with his long-time rival Bill Elliott all race, rubbing fenders at nearly 200 mph. With just seven laps to go and Earnhardt in the lead, Elliott made a move inside, his #9 Coors car bumping Earnhardt’s #3 Wrangler off course and into the infield grass—surely spelling the end of his chances. But Earnhardt managed to regain control while in the infield and maintain the lead. Earnhardt would hold on to win the race and go on to win the Winston Cup championship that year (his third). The moment entered NASCAR lore as the “Pass in the Grass”—though it wasn’t technically a pass.
Earnhardt treated racing as a contact sport and claimed to have “never been scared in a race car.” As his long-time rival Darrell Waltrip explained, “With Earnhardt, every lap is a controlled crash.” It was a style of racing he had honed on Friday-night dirt track races, where he’d spin out his competitors only to get chased out of the racetrack by enraged (and armed) mechanics. After one crash in 1985 at Richmond International Speedway, where Earnhardt spun out Darrell Waltrip with three laps to go, Waltrip claimed that he “had meant to kill me.” After another race where Dale sent Al Unser Jr.’s car flying out of the racetrack, Rusty Wallace remarked, “Now you know why we all hate him.”
H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, a legendary race promoter and track owner in the Carolinas, summed up Dale’s appeal: “Earnhardt is the resurrected Confederate soldier. Where Petty was always compliant, Earnhardt will stand his ground and say, ‘I’m not going to do that.’ And the people who love him are the people who are told, every day, what to do and what not to do, and they’ve got all those rules and regulations to go by. That just draws them closer to him.”
That’s why his death was so traumatic, and why it was so ironic that the crash that killed him ended up empowering forces that represented everything he stood against.
Starting in 2001, NASCAR made sweeping reforms in four areas. The first was safety.
Earnhardt had been the fourth driver to die in eight months across the sport. His death prompted NASCAR to build a $10 million, 61,000 square foot research & development center in Concord, NC, the next town over from where Dale grew up. Gary Nelson, then managing director of competition, was tasked with running the center and implementing new safety rules. His mandate, in the words of a NASCAR spokesman, was to change the sport in “a true scientific fashion that matches today’s times and technology.” He started by putting foam barriers on all NASCAR tracks and mandating Head & Neck Support (HANS) devices for all drivers.
By far the biggest change Nelson spearheaded was the so-called “Car of Tomorrow.” The product of five years of development, the car was four inches wider and two inches taller than the previous standard. It was deliberately designed to be slower, with a thicker, more box-like bumper and a more upright windshield to increase drag. The driver’s seat was moved four inches to the right to make it safer in a crash. The Car of Tomorrow debuted in 2007 and was mandated for all cars in 2008.
The minute design changes marked a significant transformation for the sport. Long gone was the “run what you brung” ethic of early stock car racing. In those days, race cars looked like ordinary cars you’d see on the street—and in many cases, they were. The earliest drivers bought cars off the lot and souped them up. Even during NASCAR’s prime, fans could go during the week and buy the car seen in Vic…