On the day that Dale Earnhardt died, the rookie Kurt Busch awoke refreshed. His girlfriend Melissa Schaper cooked him a breakfast of bacon and eggs, and then he dressed in shirt, jeans and a comfortable pair of shoes he'd worn since high school. In five hours, he would compete in one of the world's most famous auto races.
It was a wonder he wasn't consumed with worry.
Busch had never driven in the Daytona 500, the opening race of the 2001 Winston Cup season. He barely had any experience in a Winston Cup car, the fastest of all stockcars. But speed by itself wasn't what might have unnerved Busch -- it was the manner in which racecars circled Daytona International Speedway, a steeply banked track two-and-a-half miles long. Separated by inches, the cars traveled in packs three wide and ten or more deep -- a parking lot at nearly 200 miles per hour. Daytona punished mistakes cruelly: since its opening in 1959, more than two dozen racers had lost their lives there.
Word was that Dale Earnhardt, nicknamed "The
Intimidator" for his uniquely ruthless style of
racing, intended to teach Kurt Busch a lesson.
Rookie drivers rarely found friends among the veterans at Daytona -- but Busch would find at least one sworn enemy. Last fall, driving in one of his seven novice Cup races, Busch had accidentally bumped Dale Earnhardt Jr., spinning him out and dashing his hopes for that day. Junior, a softspoken young man, forgave. Junior's father did not. Word was that Dale Earnhardt, nicknamed "The Intimidator" for his uniquely ruthless style of racing, intended to teach Busch a lesson -- perhaps today.
Whatever happened, Busch knew, a nation would be watching. NASCAR had just signed a $2.8-billion television deal with Fox, NBC, and Turner Broadcasting to bring Winston Cup races into America's living rooms. Television executives had heavily promoted the race, and they anticipated a record audience.
Busch finished his breakfast and left his motor coach, parked alongside those of the other drivers in a fenced area of the track infield that was patrolled by guards. After a stop at the Ford Motor Company hospitality tent, where he addressed some of the people who provided him technical assistance, Busch entered the garage area, where racecars are serviced and tuned. He conferred with the crew of his No. 97 car, whose rear bumper carried a strip of yellow tape that NASCAR mandated to alert competitors to a driver's rookie status. Then he strolled out onto pit road, where crews refuel, change tires, and adjust suspensions during a race.
Busch confided that he was anxious, but not paralyzingly so. "This is something that we've built toward over the whole winter," he said. "I'm ready to go. It's time to start racing."
Busch's parents, Tom and Gaye, were worrying after him when he arrived at his hauler, an eighteen-wheel truck that transports racecars, equipment and supplies, and which features a small kitchen and a lounge outfitted with computers and a television set. During their free time at the track, drivers often seek the air-conditioned privacy of their lounge.
"I'm ready to start my crying thing," said Gaye. "I hate this race. I don't care where he finishes, just bring him home."
Gaye greeted Kurt, the older of their two sons. Kurt's younger brother, Kyle, only 15, also raced, back home in Las Vegas.
"Ready?" said Gaye.
"Yeah," said Busch. "I relaxed for a while."
Said Gaye: "He always tells me: `Calm down, Mom.' "
But Gaye couldn't settle her nerves before a race. She prayed for her son's safety, starting with the warm-up laps.
Busch stepped into his hauler and his parents followed. Busch hugged his father, and then hugged and kissed his mother, who by now was in tears. In a moment, the older Busches would leave to join the 200,000 or so others at Daytona International Speedway, a crowd almost double that for any Super Bowl. They would watch from the stands.
"I love you, Mom," said Busch. "Hang in there."
Jack Roush arrived at the garage shortly after the gates opened at 6 a.m. that Sunday, February 18. Dawn had yet to break.
Like his rookie, Roush had felt anxious when he awoke. The Daytona 500 was by its nature an unpredictable race, one where even a great driver could finish last through no fault of his own. But fans expected wins and top-5 finishes from Roush drivers. Roush fielded Ford cars and the manufacturer also had high expectations. So did Roush's sponsors, for whom a win would bring the kind of advertising no money could buy.
"It's an inconvenient and inappropriate time from the teams' point of view to have the biggest race of the year," said Roush. "We go into the first race of the year with the unknowns of the technical balance of the cars from a rules point of view -- and then try to deliver back to our sponsors and to our manufacturer and to our fans a performance that is credible, something that would justify their investment and their support."
Jack Roush hoped this would be the year one of his
drivers finally won the Winston Cup.
Roush this year also had another pressing concern: during the off-season, he had not attracted a sponsor for Kurt Busch's No. 97 car, which subsequently was painted white, not with some corporation's decals and colors. A potential sponsor with deep pockets had traveled to Daytona to hear Roush and his people pitch the kid, and a good showing today would help in reaching a deal. A bad run might send this prospect to another owner. Fortune 500 companies never lacked choices in NASCAR racing.
But Roush had not flourished by surrendering to anxieties, and by the time he'd entered the garage area, he'd pushed financial concerns aside. He strode to Mark Martin's hauler, which he used as his trackside headquarters -- and which featured a small machine shop, in which a row of carburetors awaited him this morning. Roush had built his empire on a genius for designing and building internal-combustion engines with unsurpassed power, fuel economy, and durability. Many of his innovations had made their way into production automobiles, but Roush was best known for his race engines, which he used in his own racecars -- and which he sold or leased to other NASCAR teams, as well as competitors in other auto racing leagues. What Roush didn't offer others was his personal carburetor tunings. Only Roush drivers got those.
Carburetor by carburetor, Roush went to work: first Martin's, then Jeff Burton's, then Matt Kenseth's. Squinting through a magnifying glass, he individually examined the eight spark plugs from each carburetor's engine, looking for the subtle differences in color and condition that provided insight into performance during the engine's last run. He consulted a mechanic's log, blew dust away, hammered this throttle plate and tightened that screw, changed the carburetor jets, cleaned and lubricated using two types of oil, held the carburetor to the light, reexamined each spark plug with his glass, and tinkered some more. Looking at his face, which showed engrossment and a glimmer of joy, you could almost see the ten-year-old boy from small-town Ohio, enchanted by an old lawnmower engine he hoped would power him faster than any bicycle could.
"And then there was one," said Roush, moving to Busch's carburetor.
Crew members had retrieved the carburetors to Roush's other three cars, but after tuning Kurt Busch's, Roush decided to return it to the No. 97 car himself. Finding dirt on a part of the carburetor where no dirt should have been, Roush had concluded that the air-cleaner cover was improperly attached, and he wanted to ensure that it was positioned properly for the race. "Is that a big thing?" said Roush. "No. But this is a game of inches."
Racing also was a game where old-fashioned ingenuity had its place alongside wind tunnels and computers. Said Roush: "There's still an element of alchemy and blacksmithing and witchcraft in this." And not with racecar chassis and engines only: drivers themselves sometimes seemed influenced by forces they did not entirely understand, much less control.
The sun was up now, and the garage area, which NASCAR opens to anyone with a pass, was becoming crowded. Roush left Martin's hauler and started toward the bay that held Busch's car. He hadn't gotten far when a middle-aged man asked him to autograph his program. Roush signed it. A few steps later, and a woman asked if her companion could take a picture of her with Roush. Roush posed. A rookie like Kurt Busch could still move largely unnoticed through a race throng, but not the boss.
"Good luck, Jack," another fan said.
Roush thanked him and hurried on to the No. 97 car. Roush possessed a wicked humor and when the mood fit, he told entertaining stories -- but he was all business today. He hoped this would be the year one of his drivers finally captured the Winston Cup.
It was approaching 9 a.m. when Roush account manager Becky Hanson, whose duties included public relations, knocked on the door to Jeff Burton's motor coach. Burton was about to take out the trash; back in the bedroom area of the coach, Kim, Burton's wife of nine years, tended to their five-year-old daughter and their baby son.
Burton and Hanson boarded a golf cart and headed off through the infield, a massive space that contained parking lots, the garage, a man-made lake (on which a boat racer had been killed in Daytona's early days), and several villages of motor homes and campsites. The speedway was coming alive. Spectators were filling the luxury boxes and grandstands, red meats cooked on barbecue pits, and many fans, including a pot-bellied man wearing a plastic penis on his nose, had resumed drinking after a long night of debauchery. Seventies southern rock music blasted from many stereos, and overhead a plane pulled a banner advertising a strip joint on the beach. A driver couldn't contemplate this spectacle moving at almost 200 miles per hour, but Burton did note that at the slower Watkins Glen International raceway, a road course in New York, women baring their breasts could be a significant, if not unpleasant, distraction.
Burton's golf cart left the infield, crossed the asphalt, and departed the speedway for the hospitality-tent city outside. Fans seeking autographs mobbed Burton at every turn, but eventually the cart made it to a big top decorated with red, white, and blue balloons. Cans of motor oil festooned with tinsel comprised the centerpieces at the tables inside; sitting at them, the hundreds of employees and friends of CITGO Petroleum Corporation, Burton's primary sponsor, could behold one of Burton's red, white, and blue No. 99 racecars parked in front.
As Burton waited in the wings, the emcee recounted highlights of his record: 15 career Cup wins (38th on the all-time list), and a third-place finish in the overall standings last season (a mere 29 points behind second-place Dale Earnhardt and 294 points behind the champion, Bobby Labonte). The emcee did not mention another impressive number: Burton's nearly $19 million in career Cup winnings. Nor did the emcee need to point out to this crowd, most of whom wore No. 99 caps and tee shirts, that many motorsports journalists and even some Las Vegas odds makers had picked Burton to win this year's Winston Cup.
In the prime of his career, Jeff Burton had
mastered existence at the edge.
Burton, 33, indeed seemed destined to bring Roush the one trophy he lacked. Blessed like all great drivers with the ability to concentrate for hours under conditions of intense motion, confinement, noise, and heat, he had achieved a rare union of man to machine -- and a zen-like comfort in that treacherous place between catastrophe and control. Racetracks come in different lengths, shapes, and surfaces, and Burton knew precisely which cars from Roush's extensive inventory drove best on each -- indeed, he'd helped design the cars. He knew, after driving just a few laps on any track, what subtle changes in suspension or tire pressure that his car of the day needed to deliver that extra tenth or two of a mile per hour it took to prevail. In the prime of his career, Burton had mastered existence at the edge.
Rousing music burst from a loudspeaker as Burton appeared on stage. The driver was animated when he took the microphone. "It's gonna be a great race," he said, in the silky tones of his native state. "It's gonna be really exciting to watch."
Burton outlined his admittedly simple strategy for the race -- essentially, positioning himself to prevail in the usual mad dash at the end -- and he professed satisfaction with the way his car had handled during the previous week's practices. In the question-and-answer session that followed, a fan asked Burton if he wanted to be leading the Daytona 500 halfway through. "I want to be leading at the end!" he replied, to great laughter.
Another fan asked Burton how many spotters he used.
"We only have one spotter," said Burton.
"With really good eyesight," said the fan.
"Well, we hope he has really good eyesight!" said Burton. "We haven't determined that yet!"
Burton worked a crowd masterfully -- blending down-home humor with wit and insight. These talents would serve him well if someday he sought to achieve his grand ambition. Few people knew, but Burton wanted be a United States senator after his racing career ended.
"We're ready to kick off the 2001 season," the driver said. "We'll do our best to make you proud."
Leaving the CITGO breakfast, Burton traveled to a separate tent to address employees of Coca-Cola, an associate sponsor of his car. Returning on his golf cart to the speedway, where pre-race ceremonies would soon begin, Burton talked about safety, which was often on his mind. The way racecars tended to bunch up at Daytona spooked him.
"I'm sure there will be a big wreck today," Burton said. "I just hope we're not in it."
After Kurt Busch's parents left for the grandstands, the rookie driver changed into his race shoes and fire suit, which was white, like his car. Jack Roush had given Busch proprietorship of almost twenty of his hand-built vehicles for this season -- more than his other drivers would use on the many speedways they all visited on the tour, for it was assumed that an aggressive young man required a surplus as he ascended the steep side of the learning curve. With the cars came a crew of mechanics -- some seasoned in Cup racing, others new to the series, including crew chief Matt Chambers.*******
It was noon, an hour before the Daytona 500 was to begin.
Chambers had assembled the crew for a final pre-race meeting, and the No. 97 hauler was jammed. The meeting had just started when Jack Roush stepped inside. Roush stood listening, at first.
"This is our first race together," said Chambers, "so everybody be smart. I always try to think of the worst-case scenario that could happen, so everybody do that and kind of be prepared for a flat tire, or if we run into somebody, or running out of gas, or needing to put water in it."
Chambers began to advise a team member on filling a radiator, no artless task during the frenzy of a pit stop, where a fraction of a second advantage can bring victory in a close race. Roush interrupted Chambers -- with a discourse on water pressure, water temperature, and the necessity of keeping a clean grille, through which cooling air reaches the engine. Cooling weighed on Roush's mind: One of his cars had overheated during the final race of the 2000 season, so infuriating him that he had vaulted the pit wall to personally refill the radiator -- an unusual, perhaps unprecedented, move for a millionaire car owner.
After telling the crew that he would monitor their radio during the race and would be available immediately should they need him, Roush addressed the relative importance of the Daytona 500 for Busch and his crew. With the addition this year of two races (one near Chicago, and one at Kansas City, Kansas), the Winston Cup season now consisted of thirty-six races that extended, with only three weekends off, from mid-February until the Sunday before Thanksgiving -- the longest season of any major American sport. Under a system that awarded a driver a maximum of 185 points for a single race, the eventual champion would amass something on the order of 5,000 points -- but he probably would win only four or five races, for the competition was intense at this level. A rookie would be lucky to win a single race, and it was unlikely to be the biggest one of all, the Daytona 500.
"If we get out of here in the top 20," Jack Roush said, "we're good. If we get out of here in the top 10, we just won the World Series. This is the first race of a really long season -- don't go out there and do yourself in on this one. Don't wreck yourself out. Don't get yourself nervous. Do what you can do and you'll be fine. Have a good day."
Then Roush left, to check on his other drivers.
It was Busch's turn to speak. He knew about the long season, which consumed not only most weekends, but also most weekdays, when cars are built, tested, tuned, and maintained -- a schedule that would leave him and most of his crew precious few days off until almost Christmas. Morale was critical under these conditions -- and so, before leaving the Roush home base near Charlotte, North Carolina, for Daytona, Busch had treated his crew and their girlfriends and wives to a Saturday night of beers and karaoke. He'd also bought everyone matching athletic shoes, to further the camaraderie.
"The only thing I got," Busch said, "is everybody's total focus for the whole 200 laps. We're going to be riding around for a while, hanging out on the outside lane, might go the inside lane to learn a little bit. But we're making friends. We're searching for a sponsor, so we need to run hard. Everybody do good pit stops every time, just on and off, just solid -- nothing out of control. That's the way I'm going to be out there on the track: just solid."
"Good luck out there, guys," said Chambers. "Let's do it."
As his crew monkeyed at the last minute with his car, Dale Earnhardt sat in the shade alongside his motor coach, which was situated near Jeff Burton's.
A high school dropout from the old mill town of Kannapolis, North Carolina, Earnhardt, 49, had parlayed rare driving skill into one of the most successful businesses in all of sports. With his winnings and income from endorsements, licenses, and the three Cup teams that he owned (though he himself drove for another owner, Richard Childress, his longtime friend), Earnhardt had amassed a fortune worth tens of millions of dollars. Only the likes of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods had ever played in his league.
Feet up, an ultimately cool pose, Earnhardt was wearing his signature wraparound sunglasses and his customary smirk when a TV camera moved in. A Fox broadcaster asked him about the upcoming race.
"I think it's going to be some exciting racing," Earnhardt said. "Gonna see something you probably haven't never seen on Fox."
The TV interview over, Earnhardt departed his motor coach for pit road, where 43 shiny new racecars awaited their drivers. Earnhardt walked holding the hand of his third wife and business partner, Teresa. Their only child together, twelve-year-old Taylor Nicole, walked on his other side, smiling.
Earnhardt passed Kurt Busch, who was waiting with Melissa at the back of the stage where the drivers were about to be introduced. When he was four or five years old and just starting to discover racing, Busch had rooted for Earnhardt. He'd hung posters of Earnhardt on his bedroom wall and fantasized about doing what Earnhardt did when he grew up.
"Good luck, Mr. Earnhardt," Busch said.
The Intimidator brushed past him without a word.
With other drivers, though, Earnhardt was more sociable. He embraced his son, Dale Junior, 26, who was beginning his sophomore Cup season and running in only his second Daytona 500. He talked to Kyle Petty, son of Richard Petty, the most successful stockcar driver ever. Kyle had lost his 19-year-old son, Adam, the previous May when the teenager was practicing for a race at New Hampshire International Speedway. Unable to find the words that might console Kyle, Earnhardt had avoided him in the months following Adam's death, but today he comforted the still-grieving father with a hug.
An official introduced each of the 43 drivers, the maximum number allowed in any Cup race, and they walked to their vehicles. Earnhardt was starting next to Jeff Burton, and in the moments before they climbed into their cars, the two men and their wives chatted. For some time now, Burton had hungered to buy a yacht, on which he hoped periodically to escape the crush of racing stardom, which all but imprisoned him and his family in his motor coach during race weekends. On the brief vacations his schedule allowed, Burton had leased boats -- but Kim, who managed the family finances, had resisted buying one. A boat-owner himself, Earnhardt liked to tease her.
"Hey, when you gonna buy that boat?" Earnhardt said.
"Well, we don't make the kind of money you make, you know?" Kim joked.
Earnhardt said: "Put a kerosene-soaked rag around
your ankles so the ants won't climb up there and eat
your candy ass."
Cordial though they were, Earnhardt and Burton had their professional differences. Nothing was more menacing, the saying went, than seeing Earnhardt's black No. 3 car in your rear-view mirror in the closing laps of a race, for Earnhardt would do anything to win, including wreck an opponent. Burton, on the other hand, always drove clean. "I really don't want to spin somebody else out on the last lap to win a race," he said. "We didn't win the race if we did that -- we knocked the guy out of the way. Anybody can knock somebody out of the way."
Except for once during Burton's rookie year, he and Earnhardt had never tangled on the track; Earnhardt respected Burton, who lacked only a title now to ensure an honored place in racing history. But off the track, the two men disagreed on safety, which had become a volatile issue following Adam Petty's death and the death two months later of Kenny Irwin. While they agreed that racing was inherently dangerous, Earnhardt believed that NASCAR had done about all it should to protect drivers' lives, short of reducing speeds to the point where fans wouldn't care to watch nor racers want to race. Burton, who counted a broken back among his racing injuries, believed that NASCAR and track owners could accomplish more without diminishing the appeal of their sport -- and in the weeks following the deaths of Petty and Irwin, he had emerged as the most publicly outspoken of all Cup drivers on the issue of safety. Unlike drivers who toed the NASCAR line, Burton never held his tongue.
Earnhardt was no shrinking violet, either. He'd let it be known that he was irked by Burton's insistence that NASCAR slow its cars before the Cup tour returned to New Hampshire. "I've heard some drivers saying, 'We're going too fast at Charlotte, we're going too fast here,' " Earnhardt told a reporter. "Get the hell home -- if you're not a racecar driver and not a racer, stay home. Don't come here and grumble about going too fast. Get out of the racecar if you've got feathers on your legs or butt. Put a kerosene-soaked rag around your ankles so the ants won't climb up there and eat your candy ass."
The made-for-TV band O-Town sang the National Anthem, four U.S. Air Force jets buzzed the crowd, and wives and girlfriends kissed drivers as they fidgeted in their cars. A minister recited the invocation and then grand marshal James P. Kelly, chairman and chief executive officer of United Parcel Service, which sponsored the No. 88 Ford Taurus of Dale Jarrett, the 1999 champion, spoke the words everyone had been waiting for: "Gentlemen, start your engines!"
"Let's kick ass for this championship," Earnhardt told his crew over his radio. "It's a new year and we know we can do it." Having won the Winston Cup championship seven times, Earnhardt was seeking a record eighth title.
The pace car led the field through the warmup laps and then the flagman waved the green flag. The cars powered up. Bunched together, they circled the speedway, a tidal wave of sound, motion, and gut-rattling vibration that thrilled the senses on a primal level -- a thrill that television could never capture. Only one accident marred the early going: a car driven by Jeff Purvis, a forty-one-year-old who'd never succeeded in Winston Cup racing, hit the wall, alone, bringing out a yellow caution flag, which slowed the race while a speedway crew cleared the debris from the pavement.
Busch had started twenty-sixth, in the middle of the field, but he moved methodically toward the front -- to eighteenth by lap 26. Jeff Burton was tenth, and Roush's two other Cup drivers, Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth, were also running in the top twenty. Earnhardt had advanced to first. The acknowledged master of superspeedway racing, Earnhardt had won more races than anyone on this famed track -- but only one Daytona 500, in 1998.
The race continued and other drivers took the lead. But Earnhardt never fell far back -- and Busch continued to advance.
"You know who I got in front of me?" he radioed to his spotter, Bruce Hayes, on lap 62, shortly after drivers had made their first pit stops of the day.
It was Earnhardt.
"He's the heat, man," Hayes radioed back. "Stay with him. Nice and smooth. Use your head. Hang with him."
Hayes wanted Busch to take advantage of an aerodynamic phenomenon known as draft, in which one car following another at high speed is essentially sucked along by the one in front. He wanted Busch on Earnhardt's bumper, for he believed it was only a matter of time before Earnhardt regained the lead. "If he goes off the track for a hot dog," Hayes radioed, "you go get that hot dog with him."
Busch clung to Earnhardt's bumper: they were inches apart, with cars to either side -- and more cars to the front and rear of those cars -- all moving at close to 200 miles per hour. If The Intimidator still bore a grudge for the rookie, he'd either forgotten or was biding his time.
Once again, the field shuffled. Martin found the lead, and Burton, who'd been running second, fell back to seventh.
Busch was fourth.
Two laps later, he was second.
"Hang on, just be patient," Hayes radioed. "There you go, nice and smooth. Just take your time."
Busch never did get the lead -- but over the next 80 or so laps, he was rarely lower than tenth. This was an astonishing debut. From his customary perch atop Martin's pit cart, Roush was impressed, but hardly surprised.
Nor was he surprised with what happened two-thirds of the way through the race. Coming off Turn Four, Earnhardt snuck up on Busch's left -- then banged him, metal-to-metal, door-to-door. Busch didn't spin out, but in case the rookie had missed the message, Earnhardt extended his middle finger as they headed into the front stretch, past the grandstands and the TV cameras.
Turn Four of the Daytona International Speedway is not for the faint-hearted: it is sharp and steeply banked, and drivers negotiating it are focused on steering hard left while preparing to accelerate into the straighter stretch just ahead. With less than a quarter of the race to go, Busch was coming off Turn Four when he decided to go high -- go to the right of another car. Spotter Hayes had cleared him, but Busch did not see the nose of Joe Nemechek's car tickling his rear bumper. The cars kissed, but at extreme speed, a kiss invites trouble. Busch spun sideways across the infield grass. Miraculously, he kept his car from overturning and he was unhurt, but the accident broke a part of the undercarriage of his car.
Busch coasted back to pit road, but his car was unraceable. He sat silently in his cockpit as his crew pushed him back to the garage, where they frantically began repairs.
Minus the white car with the yellow bumper, the Daytona 500 resumed. Fewer than thirty laps remained now.
Winning at speed was a sensation so pleasurable that Mark Martin
declared he would walk one hundred miles barefoot through snow for it.
After nearly three hours of concentration so terrific that three-time champion Jeff Gordon later said his eyeballs hurt, the drivers were wearying. And yet, the race was entering its most crucial phase. The winner would receive $1.3 million from a purse of more than $11 million, one of the richest in all of auto racing, and his winning car would be enshrined at NASCAR's popular Daytona museum. From Florida, he would embark on a national media tour that would delight sponsors and please Bill France Jr., who cherished such grand promotional opportunities for the sport that had made him one of the 400 wealthiest people in America. For one week, at least, the winner of the Daytona 500 would hold first place in the Winston Cup standings.
And for a short while, he would experience the sensation of winning at speed -- a sensation so pleasurable that Mark Martin declared he would walk one hundred miles barefoot through snow to achieve. "It feels like the best drug ever been made," Martin said. "Incredible. No words to describe it."
For anyone desiring all that, it was now or never.
The pack roared through the backstretch, a 3,000-foot straightaway on which drivers reached maximum speed.
Then it happened, the big wreck Jeff Burton had predicted. Robby Gordon, who'd finished the 2000 season in 43rd place, hit the car driven by Ward Burton, Jeff's older brother. It was as if a bomb had been detonated. Cars spun, smashed and smoked. They spewed metal, oil, boiling water, and hot grease. Tony Stewart's car launched into the air, barrel-rolling and bouncing off the tops of two other cars before gravity pulled its mangled carcass back to earth. Nineteen cars wrecked, including both of the Burtons', Mark Martin's, Jeff Gordon's, Dale Jarrett's, and Bobby Labonte's. Incredibly, only Stewart required an ambulance.
"I know it was exciting to watch," Jeff Burton said later, "but exciting and dangerous are two different things."
The red flag flew and the race stopped for sixteen minutes while speedway workers carted off the rubble. The most damaged cars did not return when the race resumed. Others came back minus body panels, bumpers, and hoods; under NASCAR's points system, even a hobbled lap could be worth something. His car crippled, Jeff Burton made it back -- but not Mark Martin, who was done for the day. Matt Kenseth now was the only Roush driver who had not been involved in an accident -- but he'd lost precious laps to a broken shock absorber.
Busch's team, meanwhile, managed to repair his No. 97 car, and with 15 laps left, Busch rejoined the field.
"Sorry about that, Bruce," he radioed his spotter regarding his accident. "I should have known better."
"It's just as much my fault as yours, pal," said Hayes, whose weekday job was lead fabricator -- the man in charge of building the bodies for Busch's racecars. "We're one big team, man. We win together, we lose together."
Busch took his place at the end of the field, now thinned by about a third. At the front, an emotional finish was developing as the last lap neared. Dale Earnhardt was running third -- behind Michael Waltrip and Dale Junior. Earnhardt owned his son's car -- and also Waltrip's. As the pack thundered down the backstretch for the last time, several drivers maneuvered to get by Earnhardt, but he blocked all of them. Ordinarily, this was the point in a race when The Intimidator would do anything to win -- but for the first time anyone could remember, he was letting others stay ahead: his son and Waltrip.
The pack was rounding Turn Four in the final seconds of the race when Sterling Marlin nipped Earnhardt. Earnhardt's black car spun, and Ken Schrader unavoidably hit it. Earnhardt crashed into the wall, then bounced back to bottom of the bank, where it finally stopped.
Meanwhile, Waltrip had crossed the finish line, a whisker ahead of Junior, who placed second. Delirious with excitement, Waltrip headed to Victory Lane.
What a storybook ending! In 462 Winston Cup points races over sixteen years, Michael Waltrip had never finished first -- had craved but never tasted the sensation that Mark Martin likened to a narcotic. For 462 races, an entire career, he had lived in the shadow of his brother Darrell, a three-time champion who had retired after the 2000 season and who was one of the broadcasters working the race for Fox TV. Overcome with emotion, Darrell had called the final laps of his brother's fairy-tale victory.
For the moment, Earnhardt was all but forgotten: everyone assumed that, at worst, he had been knocked unconscious in the crash. Certainly, he'd be OK; like virtually every veteran Cup driver, Earnhardt had wrecked bad before and lived to race another day. In 1976, he flipped his car five times in a race in Atlanta -- and walked away. In 1979, he broke both collarbones at Pocono Speedway -- and missed just four races. In the 1997 Daytona 500, he hit the wall, flipped, went airborne, and was in an ambulance when he discovered his car was still drivable -- so he returned to drive it, to a 31st-place finish.
Earnhardt wasn't also called Ironhead for nothing.
Nielsen ratings would show that the record audience that television executives had banked on had materialized: more than 30 million viewers in the United States alone. But a rookie who finished 41st of 43 attracted scant media attention, and Kurt Busch returned to his hauler accompanied only by Melissa. He acted subdued, but not distraught.
"Good job, honey," his girlfriend said. "You proved yourself today."
"I just came up short," Busch said.
Busch had changed out of his fire suit when Jack Roush walked in. All around, this was far from the opening day he had desired: his best driver in the race, Burton, had finished nineteenth, followed by Kenseth at twenty-first, and Martin at 33rd. Roush was disappointed, but not angry or defeated; four decades of racing had taught him many lessons, first among them racing's unending capacity for breaking hearts. And the year was still new.
Busch accepted responsibility for spinning out.
"I thought I was clear," he said.
"You could have won that race today," Roush said.
"Yes, I could have."
"I want you to dwell on that," Roush said.
Busch, who dreamed of being named Rookie of the Year, would.
Meanwhile, rescue workers had reached Earnhardt's car, where they found The Intimidator slumped over the wheel. When a paramedic raised his head, he stared into vacant eyes.
"We need 99 and the tool," another paramedic called on his radio. He wanted a doctor and the track's extrication crew.
The crew cut the roof off Earnhardt's car as the medical personnel attempted cardiopulmonary resuscitation, an unenviable task when it involves a large, helmeted man harnessed into a car without doors. Once the roof was off, Earnhardt was carried to an ambulance, which took him to nearby Halifax Medical Center.
Inside the speedway media center, brimming with journalists from around the world, the minutes ticked away. Those who had been in New Hampshire when Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin died began to get the same bad feeling -- and some remembered the scene at Daytona during the 500 race week back in 1994, when drivers Rodney Orr, a rookie, and Neil Bonnett, a future member of the Motorsports Hall of Fame, both died during pre-race qualifying and practice runs. Bonnett, Earnhardt's best friend, was attempting a comeback after a wreck three years earlier that had injured his brain, rendering him temporarily unable to remember the names of his children or his hometown.
"Earnhardt's dead," some reporters began to whisper when more than an hour passed without word.
Eager for news, journalists found that NASCAR officials had closed the garage to outsiders early. But officials could do nothing about the fence: peering through, reporters observed Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew clustering silently. A woman emerged from a NASCAR hauler in tears.
The opening race had barely ended, but already the
2001 Winston Cup season was one of the most
extraordinary in the history of racing.
"I've never seen anything like it," remarked broadcaster Ned Jarrett, Dale Jarrett's father, and himself champion twice in the 1960s.
Back at the media center, a public relations specialist announced that Stewart, who'd taken the worst beating in the 19-car wreck, had sustained only minor injuries. He'd be ready to race again the following weekend.
Someone asked about Earnhardt.
The specialist said she had no information.
At about 6:30 p.m., nearly two hours after Earnhardt crashed, the USA Today website reported that he was dead. Almost immediately, other sites began to report the same news.
Only then did NASCAR president Mike Helton walk into the media center with emergency physician Steve Bohannon. The two men took the podium.
"We've lost Dale Earnhardt," said Helton, his voice choking.
The opening race had barely ended, but already the 2001 Winston Cup season was one of the most extraordinary in the history of automobile racing.
Use of this excerpt from MEN AND SPEED by G. Wayne Miller may be made only for purposes of reviewing or promoting the book, with no changes, editing or additions whatsoever and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: Copyright © 2002 by G. Wayne Miller. Please check this version, from the manuscript, against the proofread pages.