Driving a race car, whether it is NASCAR, Formula One, or another type, is far more than just going around in an oval. It's a test of skill, reflexes, and concentration, along with resource management and nerves. These drivers go at high rates of speed over the course of a race, and the result can be a spectacular crash that puts the driver and sometimes even the crowd at risk a tire flying into the stands can be deadly.
The drivers of these cars have to have unshakable confidence in themselves. NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Sr. crafted a perfect persona borne of belief in himself he often walked around wearing sunglasses and a stone-faced look. According to Legacy, his fellow racers dubbed him "The Intimidator." He also was known as "The Man in Black." Earnhardt Sr. was there with one purpose in mind each race: win. He won 76 NASCAR Cup races and earned over $42 million in winnings, per Racing Reference.
The veteran racer drove as if he were invincible, and time and time again, it seemed that way. Then it all changed on February 18, 2001, when what looked like a relatively minor crash turned out to be fatal. The world began looking at racing in a completely different way after his autopsy results.
DALE EARNHARDT SR. COULDN'T HAVE BEEN SAVED BY PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT AT THE TIME
No one knew that February day would be the last one of Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s life. He was racing at Daytona Speedway and was on the last lap. He made contact with another car and both vehicles hit the concrete wall. To stop suddenly at a high rate of speed is often disastrous and sometimes deadly. Earnhardt Sr. was going 150 miles an hour when he hit the wall at the angle that he did. The result was blunt force trauma to his head, which is what killed him, according to the autopsy result. Fellow racer Ken Schrader was the first to get to him and realized he was dead, per ESPN. He had a host of other injuries, including fractures to his ribs and left ankle, but he was dead instantly from the damage to his head, which included a ring fracture of the base of his skull, via Autopsy Files.
There was some initial confusion about what had happened with the crash. Some thought that Earnhardt had altered his seat belt before the race and that had played a part in his death. Some speculated that the belt had broken, which but Tommy Propst, who took part in the futile effort to save the racing legend, was adamant that the seat belt was intact, via the LA Times. It was a truly sad day, one that would be etched in the minds of the people that saw it, but there would be something good that came of it.
DALE EARNHARDT SR.'S DEATH MOVED NASCAR INTO SAFER TIMES
Dale Earnhardt's death caused the sport to look inward. After the crash, NASCAR did an internal investigation and found that there were some design flaws in the cars that pertained to safety, per the Orlando Sentinel. The organization made changes to make things safer, according to NASCAR. Nowadays, the cars are designed to prevent things like blunt trauma to the head. There are sections of walls that now use energy- absorbing SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barriers that can absorb the energy from a crash, though there is still a push to make them cover more, according to SBNation. Drivers use harnesses that prevent injuries to the sternum and also keep the head from moving forward while the body stops. Since the changes, there have been no fatalities in major NASCAR races. That is part of Earnhardt's legacy: safer cars.
Per NASCAR, the legendary racer supported the idea of the walls being made softer, but he did not like anything that would have slowed the races down. Speed was a vital part of what attracted people to watch, and watering it down could have turned people away. However, the changes have not affected popularity in America, as the sport continues to gain fans, according to Tireball Sports.
Kenny Schrader was not the only racer that was impacted that horrible day. Earnhardt's son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., was participating in the same race that his father died. He quickly took his father's mantle and became the face of the sport, being named Most Popular Driver 15 straight years, according to Sportscasting. He got to race in these newer cars and tracks before semi-retiring in 2017. Now, NASCAR continues to flourish as it drives on into a bright future.
There's a bunch more stories of racer's deaths below this story at the source.