Every day, on the grainy film of Michael Waltrip's memory, the images from that afternoon a decade ago still flicker, no matter how hard he tries to block them out. They always unspool the same way: He is back at Daytona in 2001, back in Victory Lane under a blue sky, celebrating the first win of his Cup career, when driver Ken Schrader approaches. Waltrip notices something terrible in his friend's expression. Schrader had been the first person to reach Dale Earnhardt after Earnhardt crashed into the wall at more than 160 mph on the last lap of the Daytona 500 on that Sunday 10 years ago this week, and Schrader saw the horrifying result: Earnhardt, slumped in his driver's seat with a severe fracture at the base of his skull, already dead.
"It's not good," Schrader told Waltrip, who was driving for Earnhardt's team, Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI). "I think Dale's hurt."
Dale's hurt. No two words in the history of stock car racing have been freighted with greater significance. At the time of his death the 49-year-old Earnhardt was a seven-time Cup champion—tying him with Richard Petty for most career titles—a one-man industry who at the time of his death had a record $42 million in career earnings and was making millions more in endorsements, and the heart and soul of NASCAR, the rare sports icon whom beer-drinking, blue-jean-wearing fans embraced as one of their own. Hours after his death, makeshift vigils sprang up all around Daytona, at DEI headquarters in Mooresville, N.C., and at other tracks around the South, where thousands of fans held candles in the darkness and quietly shared memories of the life and times of the Intimidator.
In the days that followed it would be made clear, for the first time, that NASCAR was no longer a strictly Southern phenomena. Earnhardt's death led newscasts in markets as distant as California, North Dakota and New York City, where the news was also carried on the front page of The New York Times. On the day of Earnhardt's funeral, in his hometown of Kannapolis, N.C., U2 took the stage in Los Angeles to perform at the Grammys. The band is from Dublin, a world away from the tiny garage where Earnhardt prepared cars as a teenager to race for grocery money, but U2's guitarist, The Edge, strode onto the stage wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with Earnhardt's number 3.
Yes, millions mourned the loss of the legend. And 10 years after Earnhardt was laid to rest following a private ceremony in his hometown, the sense of loss remains, even as his presence still looms over the sport. Earnhardt's death sparked a revolution in racing safety—"I can pretty much guarantee you that I wouldn't be alive today if not for the advancements that came about because of Earnhardt's death," says driver Greg Biffle—as SAFER barriers, the Car of Tomorrow, and head-and-neck restraining devices all were implemented or mandated in the wake of his crash. Ten years after that shattering instant at Daytona, his popularity hasn't waned; over the last eight years more than $7.4 million in Earnhardt merchandise has been sold at the NASCAR.com superstore alone. Earnhardt was the first driver to aggressively market himself as a brand, and now nearly every driver in NASCAR follows his model. But as big an influence as Earnhardt has been on the entire sport, his legacy is most pronounced and profound in the lives of these three men—an owner, a driver and a son.
THE OWNER: MICHAEL WALTRIP
Everything you see in this building is the result of Dale," says Michael Waltrip, sitting in his second-floor corner office in Cornelius, N.C., at Michael Waltrip Racing, which employs 240 people and will have two drivers competing in the Cup series this season—David Reutimann and Martin Truex Jr. "I think about Dale and that moment I saw Schrader in Victory Lane every day. So quickly the best day of my life turned into the worst day."
If not for Earnhardt, Waltrip, 47, most likely would have been out of the Cup series in 2001, and probably out of the sport today. He was riding a 462-race winless streak heading into that season—the longest among active drivers in NASCAR at the time—but Earnhardt hired him a few months before the 500 to drive for DEI, the racing team he founded in 1980, even as he continued to drive for Richard Childress Racing. Earnhardt hired Waltrip for one primary reason: He believed that Waltrip, who had always shown a knack for finding and riding the aerodynamic draft at the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega, could win the Great American Race. And he did, in 2001 and again in '03, driving for DEI. "The chances of me getting into the Hall of Fame as a racer are slim to none," says Waltrip, who has four Cup wins in 763 starts and will attempt to qualify for a few events this season, including Sunday's 500. "But as an owner I have a chance to do something special, mostly because I learned a lot of secrets from Dale."
In building his race team, which is backed by Toyota and began competing full time in the Cup Series in 2007, Waltrip hired about 20 former DEI employees to fill key positions, including his general manager, Ty Norris, who was one of Earnhardt's first hires at DEI. Waltrip's top driver this season most likely will be Truex, who began his Cup career at DEI. To Waltrip, this means Truex "comes from the family."
"It felt like coming home when I signed with Michael in 2009," says the 30-year-old Truex, who finished 22nd in the standings last season. "At DEI the people there took so much pride in working for Dale. I see that same sense of pride here at MWR, almost like we're carrying on for him."