The 2001 Daytona 500 featured what at first looked like a thrilling finish. It was only later that viewers and indeed the sports world at large learned they’d witnessed a tragedy, with Dale Earnhardt Sr. killed in a last lap accident.
That was 20 years ago, and ahead of this weekend’s Daytona 500, ESPN will air an E60 documentary looking back at Earnhardt and how his death led to massive changes in stock car racing, which have proven to make the sport much, much safer.
Intimidator: The Lasting Legacy of Dale Earnhardt includes plenty of interviews, most notably the lengthy sitdown with Dale Earnahrdt Jr., who finished second in the 2001 Daytona 500 and went on to have a Hall of Fame racing career before entering the world of broadcasting.
From ESPN’s release:
Twenty years ago, the world of racing lost one of its biggest stars when Dale Earnhardt died during a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500. In a new special, ESPN’s E60 will take viewers back to that fateful day to explore the legacy of Dale Earnhardt and the effect his loss has had on the sport of NASCAR, including safety improvements to cars and racetracks
E60 Presents – Intimidator: The Lasting Legacy of Dale Earnhardt will debut on Sunday, Feb. 14, at noon ET on ESPN, just hours before the 2021 Daytona 500 gets underway at Daytona International Speedway.
ESPN senior writer Ryan McGee, who has covered NASCAR for more than 25 years, is the reporter for the story.
The list of interviewees features plenty of relevant voices from the sport in general, along with people who were there that day:
- Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.
- NASCAR driver Ryan Newman, who survived a spectacular crash in last year’s Daytona 500.
- Former NASCAR driver Kyle Petty.
- Steve Bohannon, trauma physician who was one of the first to reach Earnhardt’s wrecked car.
- Mike Helton, NASCAR Vice Chairman, who announced Earnhardt’s death.
- Steve Phelps, NASCAR President.
- Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR Executive Vice President Chief Racing Development Officer.
- John Patalak – NASCAR Senior Director of Safety Engineering.
- Mike Massaro, former ESPN reporter who covered 2001 Daytona 500.
Kyle Petty is a notable inclusion there; in addition to his own racing career and his work for NBC, Petty’s son Adam was also killed on track, less than a year prior to Earnhardt’s death. Those two accidents were two of the last deaths at the highest levels of NASCAR, and along with a few others led to massive safety overhauls that have helped make accidents much more survivable.
It’s obviously horrific for a sporting event to end in a competitor’s death, and that’s a day that people watching probably haven’t forgotten at all. But it’s also a turning point for an entire sport, and Ryan McGee and others involved looking back at the lasting legacy of Dale Sr. has a lot of potential.