It’ll be 20 years Thursday since Dale Earnhardt, the greatest NASCAR driver of his generation, died on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
No, that can’t be right.
How can it be 20 years since my greatest hero was found to be mortal? I can still remember being bummed with my mom at Daytona International Speedway the Thursday prior when Earnhardt lost the lead on the last lap of his Daytona 500 qualifying race. I can still remember racing off to my job at Baskin Robbins as FOX left the air that Sunday, my mom saying to me, “I don’t like this” as I walked out the door.
I remember the phone call from my brother at work. Fortunately, the ice cream parlor was empty.
“Dale’s dead,” my brother’s voice told me directly. That’s when I found out, but I already knew.
NASCAR changed forever that day, and it’s been changing ever since. An entire generation of drivers have come and gone since Earnhardt helped steer it to national prominence. It’s hard to say what he would think about NASCAR’s path it has been on since he left us.