On this day in 2001, Dale Earnhardt Sr., considered one of the greatest drivers in National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) history, dies at the age of 49 in a last-lap crash at the 43rd Daytona 500 in Daytona Beach, Florida. Earnhardt was driving his famous black No. 3 Chevrolet and vying for third place when he collided with another car, then crashed into a wall. After being cut from his car, Earnhardt, whose tough, aggressive driving style earned him the nickname “The Intimidator,” was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead of head injuries.
Earnhardt had been involved in another crash at the Daytona 500 in 1997, when his car flipped upside down on the backstretch. He managed to escape serious injury and went on to win Daytona in 1998, his first and only victory in that race after 20 years of trying. The 200-lap, 500-mile Daytona 500, which was first run in 1959 at the newly opened Daytona International Speedway, is one of NASCAR’s premiere events as well as its season opener.
Earnhardt, whose father was a race car driver, was born on April 29, 1951, in Kannapolis, North Carolina, and dropped out of high school to pursue his own racing career. He went on to become one of NASCAR’s most successful and respected competitors, winning 76 Winston Cup (now known as the Sprint Cup) races in his career and taking home a record seven Cup championships, a feat achieved by just one other driver in his sport, Richard Petty. In addition to his legendary accomplishments as a driver, Earnhardt was also a successful businessman and NASCAR team owner. The 2001 Daytona race which cost Earnhardt his life was won by Michael Waltrip, who drove for Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI). Earnhardt’s son, Dale Jr., also a DEI driver (until 2008, when he began driving for the Hendrick Motorsports team), took second place in the race.
Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s death in 2001 made him the fourth NASCAR driver to die within a nine-month period and eventually prompted NASCAR officials to implement a series of more stringent safety regulations, including the use of head-and-neck restraints.