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Tragedy Struck Daytona 500 in 2001

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Audio Stock Car Racing Topics:  Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt

Tragedy Struck Daytona 500 in 2001

Jim Stevenson
Voice of America
Washington, D.C.
December 29, 2001

Excerpt from a year-end sports summary

Audio Version  290KB  RealPlayer

Several sports and athletes saw winning streaks extended amid stiff competition and grueling schedules in 2001.  VOA's Jim Stevenson looks back at some highlights of the past year, which also included an untimely accident that abruptly ended the stellar career of a seasoned athlete.

In auto racing, tragedy came in the final lap of U.S. stock car racing's biggest event, the Daytona 500 mile race in Florida.  Star driver Dale Earnhardt slammed into the outside wall in sight of the finish line, instantly killing the five-time season champion.  Speculation over the integrity of Earnhardt's seat belt restraints fueled debate about the way he died.  Ahead of Earnhardt on the track was teammate Daryl Waltrip, who won his first NASCAR race.  Waltrip talked about the emotional highs and lows of his experience.

"Dale and I would talk all the time about one day of me driving for him.  And yesterday was our day.  I just could not wait.  I won the race and I was telling everybody about it," Mr. Waltrip said.  'And I just could not wait until I got that big grab on the neck and big hug.  I just knew any minute Dale was going to run into victory lane and say that is what I am talking about right there.'  But that was not to be.  My belief is that in a twinkle of an eye, you are in the presence of the Lord.  And that is where I think Dale is."

NASCAR racing rolled on as drivers like Dale Jarrett defended their sport.

"Regardless of what they may think looking from the outside about our sport that you know we are here on a death wish anyway," he said.  "That is not the case.  It is more dangerous to drive to work every day than it is for us to do what we do.  Nobody makes us get in these things.  We do it by choice.  And if they do not like what we do, then they should not watch it and not be concerned with what we do."

By the end of the season, Jeff Gordon emerged with his fourth NASCAR driving championship.  Gordon joined legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as the only drivers to win the title four or more times.

"I never dreamed I would get to Winston Cup and win a race, let alone win four Winston Cup championships," he said.  "Because I know how difficult it is to do, doing it four times is just unbelievably gratifying and fulfilling in every way."

Also on the track, German Michael Schumacher claimed his second straight driving title in Formula One racing.  With 123 points, Schumacher outclassed the field in his Ferrari and was comfortably ahead of David Coulthard of Britain, who placed second with 65 points in the final standings.  Ruebens Barrichello of Brazil was third.

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