- The debut of the Southern 500 in 1997 resulted in one of the most unusual moments of Dale Earnhardt’s long and illustrious career.
- On the first green-flag race lap, Earnhardt’s familiar black Chevrolet smashed into the outer wall in the first turn, and it wasn’t“t due to any connection from another car.
- “He was groggy before the race started,” said team owner Richard Childers of Earnhardt. “We couldn’t communicate over the radio.”
It was a Southern 500 that no one in Dale Earnhardt’s inner circle in particular — and his vast network of fans in general — is likely to forget.
August 31, 1997. Darlington Racecourse.
The start of the race 25 years ago resulted in one of the most unusual moments of Earnhardt’s long and illustrious career.
The trouble started in the minutes before the race when the usual pre-race radio spoke between the driver and pit crew – “Are there any problems?” “Ready to go?” “Good luck there” – the first puzzle of the day.
“He was groggy before the race started,” he said. Team owner Richard Childers of Earnhardt. “We couldn’t communicate over the radio.”
Realizing that Earnhardt might be in trouble, Childress tried to urge him to land in the pit road during the showtimes, but Earnhardt did not react.
On the first lap of the race’s green flag, the familiar black Earnhardt stormed the outer wall in the first turn. The idea that he might have made a mistake or blew a tire vanished when roughly the same thing happened in Turn Two. It was a fault in the car or with Earnhardt.
On the radio, Crew No. 3 tried to steer Earnhardt into the pothole.
Veteran racing photographer Phil Cavalli was standing in a team wagon along the pit road when Earnhardt’s car pulled into Turn Two.
“The safety workers ran over and put the window grille on the floor, and the next thing I know they got him out of the car,” Cavalli said. They carried him across the track and across the pit road. They brought him under the pit where I was standing. They were wearing an oxygen mask, and his uniform was open. It seemed as if his eyes were closed – as if he was completely out of him or somewhat dazed.”
Indeed, it was a shocking visual for those present at the scene. Earnhardt, one of the toughest racers of his generation, collapsed seemingly unconscious or so close to him that one of the biggest races of the season lived without him.
In the crowded panorama marking the start of NASCAR’s race at the oldest major sports track, there was more than a slight tension surrounding one of the sport’s leaders.
Confusion reigned in Earnhardt’s pit. Although Earnhard was a little quieter than usual during the pre-race period, there was nothing to worry about. The veteran driver was at times so calm and radiant before practice or races that he fell asleep in the car.
“We were busy getting the car ready, and I didn’t see Dale that morning,” longtime crew member Richard Childress Racing said. Danny “Chocolate” Myers. “Sometimes he’s around; sometimes not. But everything seemed as normal as it could be. Then all of a sudden we heard he hit the wall.”
When Earnhardt didn’t fall onto a pit road, it became clear that something was wrong inside the car. Now there was a major concern in the RCR pit: What’s wrong with Earnhardt? And if he can’t keep competing, who will drive?
“What would we do?” Myers said. “I remember people starting to look for Mike Dillon (regular NASCAR Series #2 member and Childress son-in-law). He ran the day before. We had to check with NASCAR to see if that was ok. All of this had to happen quickly.”
Dillon ran into the RCR pit and got into Earnhardt’s car. He would have finished 30th, and he got that spot for Ernhard, who was credited with the result because he started the race in the car. Dillon would only officially compete in one Cup race in his career, and that would be the following year.
Earnhardt was moved to the Racetrack Care Center. Childress spoke to him briefly there and reported that his driver was vigil before being taken to a hospital in nearby Florence for observation and tests.
At the track control tower, NASCAR officials watched the Earnhardt drama unfold even as they directed the start of the race. Among the attendees were Competition Officer (and future NASCAR President) Mike Hilton and COO Kevin Triplett, who three years earlier served as Earnhardt’s director of public relations.
“A, you don’t see such things happen, and b, you haven’t seen from the driver of that car,” Triplett said. “She didn’t add up. There was no real pre-race indication of trouble. He was sitting in his car and sleeping all the time, so looking at him and seeing him shake his head in the car was as common as hearing him, ‘Gentlemen, start your engines.'”
Triplett went to the care center right away. “There was confusion, I don’t mean doctors,” he said. “The people with the team, the looks on their faces showed confusion over what had happened.”
Jeff Gordon eventually won the race (and a $1 million reward), and fans left the highway without any clear information about what happened to Iranhardt.
Helton and Triplett visited Earnhardt at Florence Hospital after the race. “He was vigilant, as if there was nothing wrong,” Triplett said. “But there was no conclusion about what happened.”
NASCAR officials soon told Earnhardt that he would have to undergo a series of medical tests before he would be allowed to race next weekend in Richmond, Virginia.
A team of doctors examined Earnhardt at Winston-Salem, North Carolina, found no cause for his problem at the start of the Darlington race and declared he was OK to race in Richmond.
At a news conference in Richmond as the race opened this weekend, Earnhardt said doctors checked him for everything other than pregnancy. Standing up and looking fit and strong after a tense week, he gave every indication that he doesn’t expect any health issues in the future. “I’m sure it won’t happen again,” he said.
Triplett stood beside Earnhardt as he spoke.
“He underwent a series of tests,” Triplett said. There was one doctor who did the tests. He was a neurosurgeon and he dealt with this kind of thing. He found nothing that would stop him from racing. Dale was relieved. He was healthy with no residual effects. It could have been just a small episode.
“None of us who don’t go into medical school know all the details, but we do know enough to know it’s concerning. Here you have a guy who has always had this reputation as being as strong as a bull, and you look at him without any apparent symptoms. Wow, what happened?” “
The Earnhardt incident occurred in Darlington 25 years ago during one of the valleys of his career. He started racing that afternoon, and hasn’t won it since March 1996. His career has been in statistical decline since his seventh (and last) championship in 1994.
He won five races in 1995, two in ’96, none in 1997 and only six from 1998 through 2000.
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