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Earnhardt’s Loss Still Felt 10 Years After Death at the Daytona International Speedway

Fri February 18 2011 5:55 pm
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Immediately after the crash you could feel the emotion pass across the infield, according to Doug Raymond, a NASCAR fan.

He was the leader of the garage. He was ‘the man’. His aggressive driving style led to controversy and earned him the nickname “The Intimidator”.

Ralph Dale Earnhardt, Sr. died in a last-lap crash during the 2001 Daytona 500.

Just before the crash, race cars were entering Turn 3 on the final lap. Earnhardt was holding on to third place and was running in the middle lane of traffic. Marlin was behind him and running the bottom lane, while Rusty Wallace’s navy blue #2 Miller Lite Ford was directly behind Earnhardt and Ken Schrader was above Earnhardt riding the high lane in his yellow #36 M&M’s Pontiac.

After being bumped from behind by Sterling Marlin, this contact caused Earnhardt’s car to veer onto the flat apron, and while trying to correct this at a high rate of speed, the car turned sharply to the right and headed back up the banking. Schrader’s car then hit Earnhardt’s, and his black GM Goodwrench #3 then hit the wall at an estimated speed of 155 to 160 mph and was pushed down the track by the crippled #36.

Almost instantly, as the front of Earnhardt’s car made impact with the wall, the right-rear wheel assembly broke off the car, the passenger-door window blew out, and the hood pins severed, causing the hood to flap open and slam against the windshield. No other vehicles impacted Earnhardt’s car after it hit the wall, as Schrader’s car was the only one in the vicinity and the cars racing around the crash were able to make it past without incident. Both cars then slid down into the infield grass near the exit of Turn 4 and Schrader got out of his car. He went to check on Earnhardt, but jumped back and began to wave frantically for EMT-Paramedics.

A subsequent investigation revealed that Earnhardt’s car struck the concrete retaining wall at a critical angle between 13 and 14 degrees, at an estimated speed of between 157 and 161 mph. Earnhardt was killed instantly by a basilar skull fracture.

The race was also marred by a 20-car crash on lap 173 when Robby Gordon and Ward Burton got together, sending Tony Stewart’s car flipping down the backstretch. Eleven seconds after Earnhardt’s crash, Michael Waltrip, in his first race in the #15 car for Dale Earnhardt, Inc., won the race.

Quickly after the crash, Michael Waltrip and Earnhardt’s son, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., publicly and adamantly absolved Marlin of any responsibility.

The 2011 Daytona 500, the 53rd running of the event, will be held on 20 February 2011 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. Contested over 200 laps on the 2.5-mile (4.0 km) asphalt tri-oval, it will be the first race of the 2011 Sprint Cup Series season.

Significant safety improvements have been implemented since the Earnhardt crash, including mandated head and neck restraints, installation of SAFER barriers at all oval tracks, rigorous new inspection rules for seat-belt and seats, a roof-hatch escape system, and the development of a next-generation race car built with extra driver safety in mind, the Car of Tomorrow.

The driver’s seat has been moved four inches toward the center, the roll cage has been shifted three inches to the rear, and the car is two inches taller and four inches wider. Larger crumple zones are built into the car on both sides. The splitter is a piece of fiber-reinforced plastic (FRP, “fiberglass”) used on the bottom front of the car to produce downforce, replacing the valence. The car’s exhaust exits on the right side, which diverts heat from the driver. The fuel cell is stronger, and has a smaller capacity 17.75 US gallons (67.2 L), down from 22 US gallons (83 L), which as of 2007 has become standard in all cars.

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