VALLEY STREAM, N.Y. — Ten years ago we were experiencing the start of a new century with typical optimism.
On a personal note, the year 2000 was the worst of my life, having lost the last two members of my family among other things that seemed to make life difficult.
Along came 2001. The first big event was the Daytona 500. The very last lap of the proceedings went very bad with the death of Dale Earnhardt. The crash didn’t seem that bad, but when Fox went off the air, I had a bad feeling.
As terrible the tragedy was, its timing was even worse as it came on the first race of the season. When Richie Evans died in 1985, it was at the final event that year. There was time for healing. In 2001, there was only time to shed a few tears, bury our hero and it was off to North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham for the second race of the season.
At the Rock, everyone paused as Dale, Jr. wrecked on the first lap. However, Steve Park drove Dale’s No. 1 to victory during a Monday race after rain stopped the event on Sunday. It was an emotional weekend.
A couple of weeks later, Kevin Harvick, in Dale’s former ride, won a stirring race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, beating Jeff Gordon by inches.
Yes, it has been 10 years without No. 3. I called Dale’s demise, “The day the racing died.”
Too bad I was right. It certainly hasn’t been the same without him. Of every car and driver that has ever raced, Dale and No. 3 was one you never kept your eyes off. Drivers would radio their spotter and ask, “Where is he?” They didn’t have to say who. No one else has drawn that kind of attention.
Cup racing has changed these last 10 years and all for the worse. The CoT, the Chase, the Lucky Dog and ridiculous rules are what NASCAR has served up. Declines in attendance and TV ratings have resulted.
Many have wondered how long Dale would have kept driving. Some who knew him said two or three years. We will never know if title No. 8 would happen. If he had driven longer, we’d have had the chance to see him rub fenders with Kyle Busch. Man, that would be fun.
In that decade we also saw Roger Penske return to Indy-car racing and win five Indy 500s. Helio Castroneves won three of them, including the first two he entered.
Nineteen-year-old Marco Andretti almost won the 500 in his first try and Tony George, who spent millions of his own money to keep Indy-car racing afloat, was ousted out of it.
In sprint-car racing, Steve Kinser still is a viable racer, but Donny Schatz won the decade.
In 2001, weekly tributes to Dale Earnhardt continued all year. Then on a beautiful sunny clear day on Sept. 11 our thoughts went elsewhere.
Let’s hope for better things this new decade.
– I sure felt bad for Paulie Harraka, who traveled 3,000 miles to Irwindale, Calif., to get dumped in a race he should have won.
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