The only time Dale Earnhardt had ever been put into an ambulance, he had climbed right back out seconds later and climbed back into his battered black Chevrolet Monte Carlo. That was back in 1997, when he had flipped over on the backstretch at the Daytona 500.
Earnhardt could not stand the thought of being in an ambulance. That's not what he was about. He built his record-setting career on courage, toughness, heart and the determination to finish whatever he started.
The most serious injury of his illustrious career was a broken collarbone and sternum he suffered in a 1996 race. Two weeks later, taped up and having to be helped in and out of his car, he set a track record and won the pole in Watkins Glen, N.Y.
Injuries just didn't happen to Earnhardt. Even at the age of 49. He was too strong, too tough, too invincible, unbreakable and indestructible.
Until 2001 at Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Florida.
It's Sunday, February 18, 2001. There is no race that Earnhardt loves more than the Daytona 500, the premier event in stock car racing. This is the race he looks forward to, every single year, even though this is the race that took him the longest to win, the race that caused him the most emotional pain and heartache. When he finally did win it, in 1998, it was his most memorable victory, the one that stands out among all of his triumphs.
The 2000 Daytona 500 was forgettable because it was a tedious, single-file race without much passing. But this time around, NASCAR had enacted a series of rule changes to enhance closer racing and ensure plenty of passing. No one was happier than Earnhardt. He was eager to get out onto the track.
The 2001 Daytona 500, before a wild crowd of nearly 200,000, turns out to be one of the most exciting in history, with 49 lead changes among 14 drivers -- 40 more lead changes than in 2000, and the most since 1983, when there were 59.
Cars hurtle around the infield track, side by side, often three wide, at 190 miles per hour, in this wild scramble for position. Earnhardt, a master of Daytona's dazzling speed, high banks and tricky aerodynamic drafts, leads four times over 17 laps, never lurking far from the front.
With one lap to go, Earnhardt finds himself in a mass of cars as he rounds the final turn. He is running third behind his own drivers, Michael Waltrip and his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Content to finish third, Earnhardt Sr. blocks onrushing cars from overtaking his son and Waltrip. Earnhardt Sr. relishes the moment, knowing he is just a few seconds away from his first victory as a car owner at Daytona.
As Sterling Marlin's Dodge creeps up toward Earnhardt's Chevy, attempting to pass and move toward the leaders, Earnhardt veers slightly and blocks Marlin's path. Marlin's car taps the rear of Earnhardt's Monte Carlo, ever so slightly, but causes it to fishtail.
Traveling at more than 170 miles an hour, Earnhardt loses control of his car in the turbulent aerodynamic draft, a rare occurrence, and the car flies up a 31-degree incline, right toward the concrete wall. Earnhardt slams into the wall at 150 mph, at a nearly perpendicular, 75-degree angle. His car is then struck from the side by Ken Schrader's Pontiac.
The crowd is mesmerized by the closing duel between Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip, watching them charge to the finish line, neck and neck, oblivious to the crash behind the leaders. As Earnhardt's famous Chevy sits wedged against the wall in a gruesome sight, Waltrip takes the checkered flag, 0.124 seconds ahead of Earnhardt Jr., winning for the first time in 462 races over a 16-year career.
As the crowd wildly applauds Waltrip's victory in this epic race, Schrader frantically rushes toward Earnhardt's mangled car. When he arrives at the ugly scene, he immediately and frantically motions for rescue workers.
As Waltrip celebrates in Victory Lane, unaware that Earnhardt had crashed, rescue workers speed to Earnhardt's smashed Chevrolet. A paramedic climbs through the passenger window and applies an oxygen mask to Earnhardt's face. He is unconscious. He has no pulse.
Alfred Alson, a trauma surgeon, climbs in through the other window and performs CPR. Another paramedic squeezes inside the car to stabilize Earnhardt's spine and to hold his head.
Firefighters jump on the roof of the car and begin cutting away the sheet metal so Earnhardt can be removed with the least amount of trauma.
Ten agonizing minutes later, the roof is lifted. The medical unit immediately realizes how grave the situation is. As Earnhardt is loaded into the ambulance, Earnhardt Jr. is looking behind him, looking for his dad, wondering where he is. When he realizes what has happened, he runs toward his father's car. Just as he arrives, the ambulance speeds away, leaving Little E to watch in vain, wondering what condition his father is in.
As Waltrip is about to meet with the media, Schrader informs him that Earnhardt had been taken to the hospital, that the crash was serious, possibly even fatal. Waltrip began the news conference by saying he doesn't feel right talking about his victory, that it's not appropriate. "The only reason I won this race was Dale Earnhardt," he tells the media. "I just pray that he's okay."
In the ambulance, CPR is still being performed on Earnhardt. The ambulance reaches the hospital. Earnhardt never shows any signs of life. He is pronounced dead. Doctors say he died at the point of impact, at 5:16 p.m., just a second or two before Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. crossed the finish line.
At the track, a blue tarp covers Earnhardt's twisted black Chevrolet to hide his blood. The death stuns and shocks the sports world and racing community. Millions mourn. They hang black flags with Earnhardt's No. 3 on it. As darkness falls in the evening, a somber pall falls over Daytona's harsh infield. The American flag that fluttered in the wind only hours earlier just outside Victory Lane is now lowered to half-staff.