“Where were you?” … The Feb. 18, 2001 Edition

It was among the topics that always came up for damn near a decade. But, honestly, the frequency with which family and friends asked about it started waning after 2010 or so.

The topic might have been talked about less, but the memories around that fateful day in February 2001 are as rich and clear as they’ve ever been.

Everyone knows Dale Earnhardt was a massive loss to the sport of NASCAR, that’s been published in hundreds of thousands of articles since his death. For a young sports reporter, still green and wet behind the ears, losing Earnhardt touched so many emotions that extended well beyond the burgeoning sport.

You see, Dale Earnhardt was the reason I was even in the sport to begin with. I’d wanted to be a sports reporter since the seventh grade, but I wanted to write about NASCAR because I was a fan. I was a fan because of the affinity my dad and his friends had for Big E. It’s hard to find a photo of me from the mid-1990s where I wasn’t in an Earnhardt t-shirt. For my family, Big E represented us in the giant sport of NASCAR.

Here’s the story I often told when Earnhardt’s death came up in the early 2000’s. It was the well cited answer to the question, ‘where were you when that accident happened?’ I’ve never really written about that day (beyond reporting on it), and I’m not certain why. Now, 20 years and two kids later, seems as a good of a time as any.

It was a crazy time for me, that February. Just a couple of weeks before then, I’d made the difficult decision that it was time to leave sports reporting and try my hand at another profession in the sport, hopefully something with more earning potential than being a local sports reporter provided.

I’d landed a job with a marketing company that was among the top within the sport. Before I completely transitioned, though, I would cover the 2001 Daytona 500 for the newspaper, and co-host a season preview show for the NBC affiliate from Roanoke, Va.

You see, the 2001 Daytona 500 was my last event as a sports reporter. It was also the first time for me covering the biggest stock car event on the planet. The following week I was to clean out my desk and make the move from Virginia to the heart of NASCAR in North Carolina.

The week was fantastic and the massive amounts of content we created for the newspaper and preseason television show came out really well. It was lined up to be an amazing swan song as a reporter. There was an incredible level of “buzz” about the upcoming NASCAR season. It was the first year of a massive television broadcast agreement, and FOX Sports was about to broadcast its first race. The television compounds were jam packed with satellite trucks, all set to broadcast programming back to towns across the land. It’s hard to put into context just how big things felt that week.

On the eve of the 500, our live preview show from victory lane of the famed Daytona International Speedway went off without a hitch. There Justin Ditmore and I were, talking about Martinsville and the Earles family, Junie Donlavey, Stacy Compton and all of the other local, relevant topics for the upcoming season as Earnhardt was taking race dignitary Terry Bradshaw for a spin in the pace car. Imagine that. As we’re broadcasting into the homes of central Virginia, Earnhardt’s doing donuts in the pace car to instill the right amount of fear in Bradshaw … right over our shoulders!

The next morning was somewhat of a normal race morning headed into the biggest event of the season. I attended the driver’s meeting in the garage area and distinctly remember watching Earnhardt leaving the meeting and following him within vicinity as he made his way back to his hauler.

The race itself was a good one. There was action throughout and all of the potential storylines were taking shape nicely for me to write plenty of content for the newspaper. My local angle looked solid with hometown driver Compton, who started the race on the outside pole, running in the top 15 all day.

Around the three-quarter mark, the oft occurring “big one” came, highlighted by Tony Stewart going airborne in a spectacular crash. He was treated and taken to Halifax Medical Center for a checkup, which wasn’t altogether uncommon for a crash of that magnitude.

I was personally getting antsy with the understanding that a lot of work laid ahead while sitting in the tight confines of the Benny Kahn Media Center.

Today, DIS has an absolute best-in-class jewel of a media center, developed in a way that comfortably hosts hundreds of onsite media. That was not the case in 2001! I was among the fortunate to have a working space in the small deadline room within the Benny Kahn Media Center. I was sitting among a number of other reporters who had become good friends. That’s the way it was with the traveling circus of those days.

On this day, I remember sitting near the then-reporters for the Charlotte Observer, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Concord (N.C.) Tribune and The State (Columbia, S.C). NASCAR SCENE and Turner’s new NASCAR.com reporters were nearby too. Believe it or not, all of those outlets had multiple reporters covering the event, with one being in the press box overlooking the track, and the other(s) in the infield media center.

As the final laps clicked off, I suddenly found myself standing below an elevated television in the Benny Kahn – reporter’s notebook in hand – as the white flag dropped. I watched the well-reported crash occur and didn’t think a ton of it. I quickly reviewed what needed to be done and realized local racer Compton had just scored his first top-10 finish in the Cup Series. That’s where I headed. I beat him to the impound area in the garage. I can still feel and smell the race cars, their heat radiating, as exhausted-looking drivers climbed from their seats.

I patiently waited, grinning with excitement for my friend Stacy, as he climbed from his car.

“Congratulations, man,” I told him as he was removing his helmet, and taking his electronic ear pieces from his ears.

“Hey, did they get Dale out yet?” he asked me.

I remember a hint of confusion at the question, but not in a panic way. I simply thought it odd that a young driver just experiencing a highlight of his career to this point was asking about the accident – an accident that seemed somewhat commonplace at the end of a superspeedway event.

“I think so, I saw they were headed that way,” I told him, almost dismissive of the question in lieu of a return to the business at hand.

“He hit hard,” Stacy said.

I started jumping into asking him questions and didn’t get two words out when he stopped me and looked me in the eyes. He reached his hand out as if to almost slow me down. He wasn’t being a jerk at all, he was simply reiterating his point.

“No, he hit really hard,” Stacy continued.

I’d love to tell you that it clicked for me when he said that. It didn’t. And I truly didn’t imagine the crash being as devastating as it had. You’ve heard many say “it just didn’t look bad,” and I was firmly in that camp. Just 25 laps earlier I’d watched a 3,400 lb. car do a pirouette on the backstretch and, save for a trip to the hospital for quick observation, the driver was fine.

I went about my business of gathering interview content and returned to my post in the Benny Kahn. There, a half-empty deadline room was working hard to transcribe interviews and finish with interviews from drivers who were on the dais after top-five finishes.

It felt almost normal.

The actual timeline for me at this point gets a little fuzzy as it all seemed to happen very quickly. I know it didn’t.

The Observer’s Jim Utter, sitting directly across from me, got a phone call. I remember him saying, “What?” with a sense of urgency. A former Journal-Constitution reporter, also a fairly new, young reporter, also heard him. Almost in unison when Jim hung up the phone, we said, “what’s up?” Jim pointed to the door.

We navigated through the deadline room as well as a smaller, connected room that housed racks where public relations representatives stocked folders with their race teams’ content, before making our way out the front door. There, Jim turned around and told us both, “Earnhardt’s dead.”

I was stunned. Hell, we were all stunned. But I believed him when he mentioned who he’d spoken with.

I didn’t know what to do, but I felt like I needed to get into the garage. Almost at that very moment, NASCAR security was closing and locking the chain-linked garage gate entrance immediately adjacent to the Benny Kahn.

I stopped at the payphone in front of the media center. There, I called my brother’s house in Virginia. Without exchanging pleasantries, I asked to speak with my dad, who was visiting him at the time.

“Dad, Earnhardt’s dead,” I told him.

He started by sharing the same feeling that the accident didn’t look that bad.

“Dad, he’s gone. I’ve gotta go now,” I let him know.

There was a numb feeling attached to the return to work. I called my editor, Walt Moody, and we worked through a plan to blow up all of our coverage. He quickly got to the news staff and placed a hold on the A-1 page of the paper for a forthcoming obituary.

Here I was, my last race to cover as a media member, and I was having to write an obituary about one of my sports heroes. It was unbelievably hard to start.

It was quite a while before any official statement came. By then, the news had made its way around several times. National news media outlets were already making arrangements with their local counterparts and it wasn’t too long before the Benny Kahn was beyond capacity. NASCAR President Mike Helton, who 15 years later would be someone I got to work closely with, was given the unwanted task to step in front of the world. There, just 10 feet to my left, I watched as he had to tell the world about his dear friend.

“After the accident in Turn 4 of the Daytona 500, we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.”

All who spoke, including the trauma doctor who was among the first on the scene, shared in the same numb presentation as the rest in the room.

Shortly after the conclusion of the press conference, I needed to go for a walk. Inside the side room that held all of those press kits, I ran into NASCAR legend Ned Jarrett holding court with a couple of reporters. I listened in as he gracefully shared his own feelings about losing an icon. Jarrett, known for his gentleman-like presentation was so eloquent, but mired in similar grief as so many around the sport.

I continued my walk and realized I needed to get my job done. Among my tasks was writing Earnhardt’s obituary.

“Dale Earnhardt, hailed by many as the greatest stock car driver of all time, died Sunday from injuries suffered in an accident on the final lap of the Daytona 500. The seven-time Winston Cup champion was 49.,” was the opening of the obit. I stared at and repeatedly read those words 100 times before finishing the obituary, one I just never imagined having to write.

I wrote two stories and delivered them to Walt before deadline. From there I made my way back to my hotel in Ormond Beach, to get rest before flying back to Virginia the next morning. The familiar drive took me past Halifax Medical Center and provided what I can only label as the most eerie feeling I’d experienced. There wasn’t a crowd and no traffic, but just passing the hospital provided a feeling I don’t care to replicate.

Unfortunately, I needed to drive by it again the next morning. Without the darkness of Sunday evening, it wasn’t quite as bad.

I returned to Lynchburg and my office to write my final column for the paper, which was a pontification about the impact Big E’s death might have on the young racer Dale Earnhardt Jr. The first line was “There’s just something about the way a southern boy calls his dad, ‘Diddy.’”

In the column, I envisioned what it would be like to lose my own father, something that did occur 14 years after I wrote that column. Our dads were the same age and we carried similar reverence to trying to please them. It was an easy column to write and received more feedback from my readers than any I’d ever written.

Plate 2001

When I left the paper for good a few days later, my friend Carlton, who had more than 40 years working in the printing press area of the paper at the time, gifted me the 1A cover and the sports section cover together on a burned plate (what is used to actually print the paper). I had it framed in protected glass but it sits in storage as it’s a tough one to display for a multitude of emotions. I keep it for its connection to my history, and the very small link that history had to an absolute legend.

The working infield at Daytona International Speedway carries almost no resemblance to its layout on Feb. 18, 2001. I attribute that as a primary reason it was easier to return to DIS over the years following that crash. I also think that’s why the memories of that day are cemented in my mind, as the lion’s share of memories from the famed speedway since that time came against a different backdrop.

The NASCAR industry, one I remain very fond of, was very good to me. As I note that, I’m absolutely certain that none of it would have happened without Dale Earnhardt. It’s not a direct link, but it’s a real one. Simply put, if there was no Big E, there would not have existed the fandom that drove many decisions I made to get into the sport.

Among the follow up questions always asked when Earnhardt came up in conversations was if I ever had the opportunity to meet Big E. I did, several times, in the 20 months I was around the sport before his death. And I have a few of the interviews I conducted with him still on audio tape tucked away in a safe deposit box.

I have a couple favorite stories during that time, but they all pale in comparison to the stories I’ve heard from many of Dale’s longtime friends in, and out of, the sport. It was as if I got to learn more about the legend after his death than I did before it, thanks to the first-person encounters from his friends (some of who have become my friends).

I get excited when I envision my kids, or grandkids, having the opportunity to hear many of those stories someday.

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