MY NEW LIFE
Have you ever gotten out of bed in the morning, walked into the bathroom, looked at yourself in the mirror, and said, “Today things are going to change”? Me neither. I don’t talk to myself in mirrors. But I have gotten out of bed knowing that things were going to be different, and that’s exactly how I felt on the morning of February 18, 2001.
Big-time changes were happening for me, and I knew it. People around me knew it too, and they had been saying so all week, speculating and joking with me the way race people do. Still, none of us—certainly not me, and not anybody I talked to in the days afterward—suspected that the Sudden Change, the lightning-quick pivotal event that would burn that Sunday into our collective memory and alter the course of our lives forever, was only hours away.
On that morning the air around the Daytona International Speedway was heavy with the familiar smells of fuel and burning rubber. The track had been busy for two weeks in the run-up to the first big race of the season, the Daytona 500.
In case you’re not familiar with NASCAR, let me explain. Typical events in NASCAR’s top series are three-day weekends, with practice laps and qualifying heats on Friday and Saturday, followed by the big race on Sunday. The Daytona 500, however, is different. NASCAR holds its “Super Bowl” at the beginning of its season rather than the end, and this race, its richest and most prestigious, is the final act in an extended drama of speed and suspense known as “Speedweeks.” This year major spectator events during Speedweeks had included a 70-lap all-star race called the Budweiser Shootout and the season-opening races for NASCAR’s two lower-tier series, the Busch Grand National series and the Craftsman Truck series—plus the preliminaries for the Daytona 500.
Unlike other races, the qualifying laps for the Daytona 500 are run a week before the race, and only the first two starting positions are awarded when those timed solo laps are over. Four days later all drivers compete in one of two heart-stopping races known as the Twin 125s (nowadays their official name is the Gatorade Duels), battling for starting position in the Sunday race that will be watched by a quarter-million fans in the stands and millions more on television.
I knew the drama of Speedweeks well, but up until this morning I had always experienced the Daytona 500 as a driver. And I can tell you this: for a driver, going to the track on Sunday is like going to war. Other drivers may be your friends and colleagues on any other day, but on Sunday you are going out there against 42 other guys, and every one of them is a threat. Every one of them threatens your livelihood, just as you threaten his. When the announcer calling the race tells the television audience that drivers are “battling for position” on the track, that’s no metaphor.
And there is a thrill in that battle that no other experience can match. The feel of the wheel in your hands, the power of 750 horses under your feet, the roar, the blur, the bump, the difficult pass, together trigger an adrenaline rush that you will never capture anywhere else. Racing is a peak experience, and the feeling only intensifies when you win.
I knew the feeling of winning the Daytona 500; I’d won the race in 1989. I’d won plenty of other races too, a total of 84 during my Winston Cup career. I’d won the Cup Championship three times. On NASCAR’s list of All-Time Winningest Drivers, I was tied with Bobby Allison for third. (In the modern era of NASCAR, after 1972, I was in the lead.) But all of that was history now, because I had retired. On this Sunday I would not be walking to pit row for the start of the race. Instead I’d be climbing up to the broadcast booth in my new capacity as lead analyst for Fox Sports.
My kid brother Michael would be in the race, though. Sixteen years my junior, Michael had been driving in the Winston Cup series since 1985. He had started the Daytona 500 14 times, finishing five times in the top ten, but he had never won the race. In fact Michael now held the NASCAR record for consecutive starts without a win. In 462 Winston Cup races, he had never finished better than second.
This season, seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt had expanded his racing team to three cars, and he’d hired Michael to drive one of them. Earnhardt had an awful lot of confidence in his cars, and he liked Michael, so when people made comments about his selection of a driver who’d never won a race, Dale just brushed the criticism aside. His son, 26-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had been named NASCAR’s Rookie of the Year in 2000, would be driving the #8 car for Dale Earnhardt, Inc., and Steve Park would be driving Earnhardt’s other car, the #1 Chevy. Earnhardt would be in the race too, piloting the signature black #3 Chevy for owner Richard Childress.
I’d talked with my brother on Saturday, discussing the day ahead and its storybook possibilities. It was entirely possible, I told Michael, that he would win this race. He might very well get his first Winston Cup victory on my first day in the broadcast booth! If so, we would be like Ned and Dale Jarrett. Ned, the retired driver turned broadcaster, had been calling the Championship 400 at the Michigan Speedway in 1991 when his son Dale took his first checkered flag. Two years later the younger Jarrett had narrowly edged out Dale Earnhardt for the win in the Daytona 500 as his father openly rooted for him and coached him to victory from the broadcast booth. (Ned was embarrassed by his partisanship in that race and had tried to apologize to Earnhardt afterward, but Earnhardt had waved the apology away with a smile. “I’m a father too,” he said.)
Earnhardt had been busy during Speedweeks, as he always was at Daytona, and I had worked hard to schedule a single on-camera interview with him before the big race. Our glamorous roving reporter Jeannie Zelasko, however, spoke with him multiple times. It seemed like whenever Jeannie came around the garage, Dale suddenly wasn’t that busy anymore. On Friday I was scanning the monitors in the broadcast booth when I noticed that Jeannie was interviewing Earnhardt yet again. When she finished, I broke in. “Hey Jeannie,” I said, “give those earphones to Dale, will you?” Jeannie quickly obliged, telling Earnhardt that I had a couple of questions for him.
“Hey Dale,” I said, “how come you always have time for Jeannie but you never have time for me?”
Dale gave me a cockeyed grin, as though I’d just asked the stupidest question in the world. “She’s prettier,” he answered.
“So tell me, Dale,” I said, “when are you going to retire?”
Dale pretended to be mystified by the suggestion. “Why should I retire?” he replied. “I’m still competitive!”
The jab was good-natured. Dale and I were now friends, but our relationship had not always been cordial. We were rivals on the racetrack for years. Our rivalry had spilled into public view in the early 1980s after a flippant remark I’d made in an interview; I’d told a print reporter that I could say anything I wanted about Dale and his team because “they wouldn’t be able to read it anyway.” Dale hadn’t found that comment nearly as funny as I had.
My career had peaked in 1992, but there was no denying that Earnhardt was still competitive, especially at Daytona. Throughout the 1990s he had won every Twin 125 in which he had competed, an incredible ten consecutive victories. In 1998 he had finally taken the checkered flag in the Daytona 500, a win that announcer Mike Joy had called “the most anticipated victory in NASCAR history.” After the race, as Earnhardt slowly rolled toward Victory Circle, every crew member from every team had lined up on pit road to shake his hand. It was an unprecedented show of respect, a moment that solidified Earnhardt’s place in the pantheon of NASCAR’s greatest drivers.
In the Twin 125s earlier this week, Earnhardt had finished third, earning the seventh starting position for the race on Sunday. He would be starting on the inside in the fourth row when the flag dropped on the 2001 Daytona 500. Dale Jr. had earned the sixth position, so he’d be starting on the outside in the third row. My brother Michael, behind the wheel of the #15 car, had qualified for the 19th starting position, so he’d be starting in the tenth row. Steve Park would be starting in the 13th row, in the 25th position.
The race was scheduled to start at one o’clock, but the pre-race broadcast began at noon. As noon approached, I took my place at the studio desk opposite Chris Myers, who would be hosting the pre-race show. Jeff Hammond, my friend and former crew chief, sat between us. Jeff would be working as a roving reporter during the race, but he seemed to think his main job during Speedweeks was to talk me through the broadcasts in much the same way he’d talked me through countless trips around the track. After some light-hearted banter, the three of us introduced the television audience to the issues we had identified as the potential themes of the day.
The car manufacturer Dodge was making its return to NASCAR this year, after a 16-year absence. Most people hadn’t expected much from Dodge after such a long layoff, but by now it was clear to everyone that the Dodge team, led by Ray Evernham, had really done its homework. Bill Elliot had won the pole for the big race by posting the fastest average lap speed during qualifying—187.715 miles per hour—in a Dodge. Stacy Compton, also in a Dodge, had finished second in qualifying. Sterling Marlin had earned the third starting spot for the big race by winning the first of the Twin 125s in a Dodge.
The blistering s...