Later today, the Daytona 500 champion will be crowned for 2016, as NASCAR starts its season with its biggest event.
A decade and a half ago, I was watching the same race which Michael Waltrip won, with older brother (and at the time more well known) Darrell putting away any partiality to cheer him to victory at the FOX broadcast booth. There had been a bad wreck behind “Mikey” and second place finisher Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the last turn of the last lap, but the television coverage captured Michael’s win and celebration for several minutes afterward, as would normally be the case.
Sometime after the celebration, I had turned on the XFL game (remember them?) on TV and watched that, thinking the last lap wreck could not have been too bad. Right around 6:30 I was watching NBC for NBA coverage, and I caught Ahmad Rashad giving condolences to the Earnhardt family.
Flipping around, I caught the word that Dale Earnhardt Sr. had died in that final lap wreck, and I felt terrible. While auto racing is a dangerous sport that has claimed the lives of quite a few drivers (especially in Formula One back in the 60’s through the 80’s, and infrequently in rather gory fashion), it always saddens me when a sport claims someone’s life. Sports are supposed to be fun, not a life or death adventure, though I understand that many race for the “rush” of it all.
News of the senior Earnhardt’s death hit the racing world hard, much like the reaction to Princess Diana’s death in Paris had hit the world three and a half years earlier. They had the services for him at Charlotte’s Calvary Church, which I’d pass every night as I went to the local Walmart on my way to work in 1999 and 2000.
Since then, NASCAR hasn’t lost a single driver to race related injuries, as they’ve made drivers and the courses safe. Racing being what racing is, I don’t doubt there will be another day where a driver is lost (as has happened in other mediums of the sport the past 15 years, most notably to Dan Wheldon a few years ago in Las Vegas), but I’m certainly not looking forward to it.