Earnhardt's death in 2001 showed NASCAR it needed major changes

Dale Earnhardt (3) died at Daytona 10 years ago Friday.


Smoke in the final turn.

When I think about where I was 10 years ago Friday, what I saw and what I wrote, how the day's events affected the lives of the thousands that were at Daytona International Speedway and the millions watching at home, I think of that one little phrase.

Smoke in the final turn. Sounds so harmless, something you see all the time at a NASCAR event.

A car had gone up the track and into the wall. As Michael Waltrip's car roared toward the checkered flag with Dale Earnhardt Jr. right behind, there was trouble in Turn 4.

It only took a few minutes, maybe 10 or 15, to know this trouble was real. The sight of Ken Schrader, out of his wrecked M&M's car, looking into the No. 3 car driver's window and then waving for help. Soon, 11 emergency vehicles were collected in the speedway's final turn.

It was two hours later that NASCAR's Mike Helton made it official.

"We've lost Dale Earnhardt."

It was an awful, yet amazing time for NASCAR. The sport was just stepping its way into the national mainstream with a new TV contract from Fox generating millions of dollars and creating interest in what had until recently been a Southerners-only sport.

At the same time that Earnhardt's death propelled NASCAR to the front of sports pages, there was an understandable debate as to whether this enterprise could be viewed as legitimate.

Not forgotten but certainly trumped by the death of the circuit's seven-time champ, three other NASCAR drivers had been killed the previous season. Adam Petty, grandson of the King himself, and Kenny Irwin both died in practice runs in New Hampshire. Tony Roper was killed in a Craftsman Truck race at Texas Motor Speedway.

It was while all of this mayhem was going on in 2000 that Earnhardt spoke out about the need for NASCAR to install safer barriers. "I'd rather they spend 20 minutes cleaning up that mess than cleaning me off the wall," he said.

With tragedy striking the Daytona 500, NASCAR truly was a death sport.

I remember sitting in the press box that day, staring at my laptop and searching for words, any words, that might fit. Tony Fabrizio, The Dallas Morning News' racing writer at the time, sat next to me. Looking off over the infield, he said, "Maybe it is wrong."

There really wasn't a better way to say it.

I had arrived late at the NASCAR party, becoming something between avid follower and fan after attending my first Daytona 500 in 2000. I already had both of my kids decked out in Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart outfits.

Yes, they have since forgiven me.

But seriously, I thought the toughest part of that day was going to be the phone call home after watching Stewart's car flip through the air in the backstretch, part of a 19-car pileup. It was the kind of crash generally referred to as "spectacular" that you can't just watch and think everyone is going to be fine.

Stewart suffered a concussion and a shoulder injury.

By comparison, Earnhardt's wreck looked minor.

And, like that, he was gone.

Ten years later, NASCAR will celebrate his life at Sunday's Daytona 500.

At the same time, NASCAR deserves applause for the manner in which it has evolved from its "death sport" status, even as it searches for a new audience.

Although many drivers already were wearing the HANS (Head and Neck Support) devices in 2001, Earnhardt was not. He also didn't wear a full face shield.

Today's cars are much better at absorbing impact as well, but the safer walls are really the key (knock on wood) to having removed life-threatening injuries from NASCAR.

While I don't think anyone went to NASCAR races hoping a crash would produce a fatality, the adrenaline rush from watching and hearing those cars hit "full song" is certainly at the heart of the sport's appeal.

It doesn't have to be deadly. It does need to feel dangerous.

People do not pay to stand for hours next to a Six Flags amusement park thrill ride and listen to the screams. They know those cars aren't flying off the tracks.

With five titles, Jimmie Johnson has the trophies and the statistical proof to say that he measures up as the next Earnhardt. But his bland personality prevents him from ever being as loved or as hated as the driver of the No. 3 car.

To say that NASCAR will never have another Earnhardt Sr. is probably true for lots of reasons. The only one that matters is that, belatedly or not, NASCAR got around to doing everything possible to make sure another icon of the sport would not be cut out of his car in Turn 4 at Daytona and rushed to Halifax (Fla.) Medical Center.

The words "smoke in the final turn" should never again sound quite so ominous.