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Earnhardt saga: a scribe's perspective


© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 7, 2001

Times sports writer Kevin Kelly has seen every stage of the Dale Earnhardt saga as it unfolded, the icon's death on Feb. 18 in Daytona Beach, the memorial service in Charlotte, the emotional next race at Rockingham, N.C., that lasted two days, the three-day hearing over access to his autopsy photos and NASCAR's return to Daytona. Here are some scenes and thoughts that stand out.

* * *

DAYTONA BEACH -- His face was flushed and tears welled in the corners of his eyes.

Darrell Waltrip's younger brother was less than a mile from winning his first race in 463 starts, and it was all unfolding below Darrell in the Fox broadcast booth.

That was before a cloud of smoke rising in the fourth turn ruined the ending.

The two-car wreck didn't look nearly as lethal as the 19-car pileup earlier in the Daytona 500. Dale Earnhardt had walked away from worse.

But as Michael Waltrip celebrated his long-awaited victory on Feb. 18, his seven-time Winston Cup champion team owner was being cut out of a black No. 3 Chevy. Soon a blue tarp appeared.

Children construct makeshift tents out of them in their back yards on starry summer nights, but the sight of a blue tarp in NASCAR means only trouble.

Its unveiling is reserved for tragic circumstances.

That is why fingers fumbled to find numbers on the press box phones moments after emergency workers shrouded the car, towed it to the garage and parked it in an 18-wheeler.

The first thing I remember is Orlando Sentinel and former Sports Illustrated writer Ed Hinton standing stoically beside me, his reading glasses balanced on the tip of his nose. He had a lit cigarette stuck to his lips, a tape recorder in one hand and a notebook in the other.

He was silent. Everybody was.

No announcement had been made, but damn if you didn't know the biggest name in the sport had died right before your eyes.

It has been 138 days since Earnhardt smacked the Turn 4 wall at Daytona International Speedway and died from a basilar skull fracture -- the fourth NASCAR driver to suffer that fatal injury in a 10-month span.

Though more competitors are wearing head-and-neck devices to prevent such tragedies, little has changed on NASCAR's part since Earnhardt's death.

Tonight's Pepsi 400, which is the first Winston Cup race at the track since Earnhardt's crash, will be a three-hour test to see how long people can hold their breath ... just like the events of the past five months.

The hospital

Knowing NASCAR did not release information about Kenny Irwin's death in July 2000 at New Hampshire International Speedway until several hours after his crash, a colleague and I drove to Halifax Medical Center seeking information.

The scene was disturbing, heartbreaking and simply awesome.

Police blocked the parking lot adjacent to the emergency room while curious fans and a few reporters milled about in search of Earnhardt's condition.

A procession of puffy-eyed Earnhardt family members and friends started a little after 6 p.m. and included NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr., NASCAR president Mike Helton, Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, son Dale Jr. and crew chief Kevin Hamlin.

They drove away in sport utility vehicles and family sedans without comment.

During a hearing regarding the release of Earnhardt's autopsy photos in June, Dr. Steve Bohannon recounted a scene inside the hospital.

Teresa Earnhardt tearfully refused to let hospital employees remove the driver's gold wedding band from his ring finger. Though against hospital policy, Bohannon granted her request and Earnhardt was buried with the wedding ring on his finger.

A maroon minivan

An unmarked maroon minivan backed up as close as it could to the sliding glass doors of the emergency room.

Two white sheets were placed over the windshield to discourage photos from being taken. Earnhardt's body was wheeled from the emergency room and loaded inside.

The minivan drove off with a police escort.

No flashing lights.

Soon, the world heard Helton and Bohannon, head of emergency medical services at the track, relay news that Earnhardt had died.

As a football-field sized American flag flying above the infield was lowered to half-staff, a grieving Earnhardt fan pulled his black T-shirt off and dropped it on the infield grass where Earnhardt celebrated his Daytona 500 win in 1998.

It would be the first of countless mementos laid in Earnhardt's honor in the days that followed.

The days after

The flowers arrived from everywhere and blanketed the stage at Calvary Church on Feb. 22, the day Earnhardt was remembered in a touching memorial service in Charlotte, N.C.

"Though I never met you, I considered you a friend," read a card attached to an arrangement that fan Mike Addams sent.

"We will continue to fly our No. 3 flag forever," John and Tracie Mosley wrote.

"In loving memory of Dale. Our thoughts and prayers are with you," signed Tony and Laura George and the staff at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

State troopers assigned to work the service snapped photographs in front of the stage when it was over.

Earnhardt Jr. appeared at a news conference the next day at North Carolina Speedway. It was there, in a frigid tent illuminated by flood lights, that NASCAR also revealed it had found a separated left lap belt in Earnhardt's car.

"One of the things that really teaches the most is how selfish you are about things like this," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I mean, I miss my father and I've cried for him out of my own selfish pity is the reason for those emotions."

Earnhardt Jr. crashed on the first lap of the DuraLube 400 two days later, an accident eerily similar to his father's.

He limped away and escaped the garage through a side door, riding his transporter.

The watch

Kristen Bonnett extended her right arm, tugged up her shirt sleeve to display a gold Rolex watch buffed to a shine.

Its gold color shone throughout the Volusia County courtroom where for three days in June the owner of a Web site and lawyers for Teresa Earnhardt and the Independent Florida Alligator argued over a new law that made it a felony to release autopsy photos without a judge's approval.

"This is the watch daddy was wearing when he died," Bonnett said.

An already emotional courtroom went silent as lumps developed in throats.

Bonnett, whose father, Neil, was killed in 1994 at Daytona, testified to the anguish family members had experienced since Web site owner Michael Uribe published the autopsy photos of her father on the Internet.

"Every time I see a photograph now, the first thing that comes to my mind is the photograph of him with a neck brace on a table," she said. "That is stuck in my mind.

"At first I was extremely angry. In one day I probably experienced every emotion you could experience. I rode the emotional roller coaster."

Looking for answers

Those touched by Earnhardt's death want justice in one form or another.

Teresa Earnhardt fights to keep autopsy photos of her husband private. The Orlando Sentinel and the Independent Florida Alligator stand up for public records.

Race fans still mourn, unable to turn on the television on Sunday because the driver they most identified with isn't on the track.

Indeed, we all have reasons for wanting justice and justification.

My only hope is we'll see something happen before another driver dies, before another husband misses his wedding anniversary because of something that might have been preventable.

Maybe NASCAR will have answers when it issues its report next month.

Then again, maybe it won't.

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