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Dale Earnhardt Dies After Crash in Daytona 500

Aired February 18, 2001 - 7:00 p.m. ET



BRIAN NELSON, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Brian Nelson at the CNN Center in Atlanta. We have some very sad news to report at this hour.

According to Associated Press, NASCAR giant and legend Dale Earnhardt Sr. has died in a hospital in Daytona Beach from injuries sustained in an accident at the Daytona 500 this afternoon.

Let's bring in CNNSI's John Giannone, who can bring us up to speed on the details -- John.

JOHN GIANNONE, CNNSI CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, we are awaiting word on a press conference held by NASCAR President Mike Helton, which is expected to occur shortly here at the racetrack.

Dale Earnhardt was involved in an accident in the final turn of the final lap of this race this afternoon, a race won by Michael Waltrip, who was driving a car owned by Dale Earnhardt. The race -- the crash occurred as Earnhardt was racing toward the finish line. The back of his car bumped into the front of Sterling Marlin's car and then it skidded up the track. It collided with Ken Schrader's car and then went straight on into the wall at about 190 miles an hour.

Now, Earnhardt was taking by ambulance to Halifax Hospital, about 2 miles from the racetrack. He was unconscious when paramedics arrived and they cut off the top of the car to get him out.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. climbed out of his car, raced on foot to his father and accompanied him to the hospital.

Dale Earnhardt is the winningest driver in the history of the Daytona International Speedway. He's won here 34 times. He's also a seven times Winston Cup point series champion, and that equals the record set by the great Richard Petty. And this week, Dale Earnhardt made it clear that was his goal for 2001, to become the best of the best. In fact, he said, "The best is yet to come: There's championship to win."

Again, right here at the racetrack, we're awaiting a press conference with NASCAR President Mike Helton. That should be happening shortly.

For now, though, let's go back to Atlanta. NELSON: John, we have -- CNN has just confirmed now the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. That happened this afternoon as a result of the accident you just described.

We have also received some word through some of the wire services that he sustained massive chest injuries. Do you have any details on his condition?

GIANNONE: Well, the information that I received from the hospital when I spoke to a person there moments ago was just that he was in serious condition, he did have chest injuries. They didn't want to reveal any other information.

But usually, that is what occurs when you run head first into a wall at 180 or 190 miles an hour. And Neil Bonnett, who was a NASCAR driver, a champion driver, died here when he hit the wall at about 200 miles an hour back in 1994. In fact, this is the third death of a NASCAR Winston Cup driver in the last nine months.

19-year-old Adam Petty, who was the son of Kyle Petty and the grandson of the great Richard Petty, he died back last May. And then Kenny Irwin died in July, and both of those deaths occurred at the same track in New Hampshire.

So NASCAR and the Winston Cup world rocked for a third time in nine months by the death of a driver.

NELSON: Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s -- I'm sorry. Dale Earnhardt's son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., was with his father presumably at the time he was in the hospital. Has anyone had the chance to speak to him since?

GIANNONE: No, in fact, this is -- this news is so new and so fresh I would imagine that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is probably still at the hospital. In fact, as I had said, as soon as he finished the race and got back to the pit area -- he finished second in the race -- he was informed by one of his pit crew members that his father was involved in an accident. They didn't know at the time that the accident was as serious as it was. But he immediately climbed out of his car and sped as fast as he could to his father's side and did accompany him to the hospital. So I would imagine he's probably still there.

NELSON: OK. Thank you, CNNSI's John Giannone. We'll be back to you later.

I want to bring in by phone now Linda Sharp, who's a friend of Dale Earnhardt Sr. She is joining us by telephone.

Ms. Sharp, were you there at the Daytona 500 to witness the crash?

LINDA SHARP, FRIEND OF DALE EARNHARDT: No, sir. I was not at the Daytona 500. I was listening to the race on the radio on the way home. We had been down in Daytona for Speed Week, but came home today.

NELSON: You were a very close friend of Dale Earnhardt Sr. You must be devastated.

SHARP: Well, I am devastated. My husband is actually the person that was -- he had been a business associate of Earnhardt's. My husband worked for Richard Childress Racing for 10 years in the engines department and was there for five of Dale's championships. And I had in social occasions on many times met Dale, and as a member of the media had met him in press functions, and as a former racer, respect to Dale as the consummate race-car driver.

NELSON: He was a very competitive individual. How did he approach accidents, like the one we just witnessed?

SHARP: Well, you know, I think everyone in the racing community pretty much approaches it the same one, that when you live life on the edge, it's part of the risk you take. And you live hard, sometimes it ends hard.

The racing community as a whole tends to try to look at it from the standpoint that, well, if you have pass away in the sport, you do it doing what you love to do, and you understand that it's part of the risk when you take this occupation.

NELSON: Ms. Sharp, I'm reading an article from the "Sports Illustrated" December edition of 19 -- I'm sorry -- of 2000. And in there, it describes a crash that Dale Earnhardt Sr. suffered in March of '99. And in the wake of that, I understand he was giving some consideration to retiring because of the pain in his neck. Are you familiar with his thoughts on it at the time?

SHARP: I'm not specifically familiar. I know he had surgery in the last year, so to have some stuff removed. But you know, Dale Earnhardt was -- I mean, he was the icon of NASCAR. I mean, Richard Petty is, yes, the king, but Richard Petty was sort of from the first generation and Dale Earnhardt was the modern-day era, and the sport as a whole has -- had become much more competitive in the last 10 or 15 years.

You know, whether or not he was ready to retire, he was probably waiting until Dale Jr., you know, was a little bit more established, and then would just past the baton on, onto his son.

NELSON: Well, Dale Jr. came in second in that race today.

SHARP: Yes, I mean, Dale Jr. is a very talented young man, he's a very talented driver. Whether or not he is the equal to his father remains to be seen. But I think that you will see the NASCAR community, the fan community transfer their loyalty from Dale Earnhardt to Dale Jr. I also think that you will see a similar situation in what happened when Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, because they died before...

NELSON: Died before their time.

SHARP: Yeah, before their -- I mean, granted Dale Earnhardt was about to be 50, but he had -- he was still active and he was still a participant. He wasn't retired. You know, so I think that his legend will grow and live on even more so now under these circumstances.

And another true irony is that he died almost in the exact same spot that his best friend, Neil Bonnett, passed away some years ago.

NELSON: Ms. Sharp, as a viewer of the NASCAR sense, what do you think this is going to do to auto racing and NASCAR?

SHARP: Well, I mean, initially right now, it definitely casts a giant dark cloud over NASCAR. And there were also some comments from some of the drivers from the first accident, the one that involved Tony Stewart, where the new rules implementation of the little spoiler on the front of the roof is a recipe for disaster.

I don't think that was the case in Dale Earnhardt's accident. I don't think that was what caused that accident from what I understand.

But NASCAR is a very strong entity. They are traditionally survivors. You know, I think they'll pick up all the pieces and they'll go on.

On the other side of it, this is the most major disaster they've ever had. I mean, Dale Earnhardt unquestionably was the most popular driver. While he didn't win the award that he actually coveted very much and never won -- Bill Elliott has won that award countless times -- Dale Earnhardt did sell more souvenirs than any other single driver on the NASCAR circuit.

And that's pretty much a testament to the fact that he was the star. You go to a NASCAR race and you see more Dale Earnhardt apparel than anything else.

So I mean, this is a major, major loss to the sport. And you know, everybody thought of Earnhardt as the intimidator, as being invincible. And it may weigh much more heavily on the minds of other drivers now than other losses have.

NELSON: Ms. Sharp, was Dale Earnhardt an especially big risk- taker compared to some of the other drivers in NASCAR?

SHARP: I don't think that I think Dale Earnhardt was a bigger risk-taker. I think, in my opinion -- and you have to understand that I am a consummate Dale Earnhardt fan as a former race -- I think there has been no one ever more talented to hold a steering wheel in their hands in stock car competition than Dale Earnhardt.

And what other people might have perceived as a risk, Dale Earnhardt had an innate talent to make a car do things that other people weren't capable of doing. So to say that he was a bigger risk- taker, I don't think that would be a fair comment.

NELSON: What can you tell us about his family beyond his son who was there at the -- in the race today and who joined him in the hospital?

SHARP: Well, Dale has four children. His oldest son, Kerry, is from his first marriage, and then his daughter Kelly and Dale Jr. were from his second marriage. And then Teresa Nicole-- excuse me, Taylor Nicole, his youngest daughter is, oh, about 12, I guess, now.

And I mean, he was -- he was -- even though he had multiple wives, he was very close with all his children. He was a good father. And I mean, a real testament to how good a father he was, was what a fine young man Dale Jr. is.

NELSON: Very much so.

He -- he calls home a 500-acre ranch in North Carolina, and as I understand it, one of his big things was always to get up early in the morning.

SHARP: Oh, he was a very early riser. He -- you know, he would say that he would hit the floor running before the sun came up. He wasn't one to lollygag around. He was as very driven individual. But you know, he lived life to the fullest, and while it definitely is a tragic loss -- it's a tragic loss to me personally -- probably no one has ever lived life more fully than Dale Earnhardt.

NELSON: Ms. Sharp, my final question is this: How do you think NASCAR could suitably memorialize the name of Dale Earnhardt Sr.?

SHARP: Oh, boy, is that a tough question? You know, I don't know that there's any one single act. I mean, you know, they've put statues of Bill France Sr. and they've named grandstands for other people. But Earnhardt was a unique entity. You know, they might have a memorial race for him or something like that. But probably Dale Earnhardt has done more to memorialize himself by his life than anything that anyone else could do.

NELSON: Well, our condolences to you and to his fans and to his family. Linda Sharp, a friend of Dale Earnhardt Sr., who has dies in a hospital in Daytona Beach. Ms. Sharp, thank you for taking the time to join us.

SHARP: My pleasure.

NELSON: And now NASCAR officials have apparently held a news conference, which we now want to bring to you on tape. And the spokesman here is Mike Helton.


MIKE HELTON, PRESIDENT, NASCAR: This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements that I've ever personally had to make, but after the accident in turn four at the end of the Daytona 500, we've lost Dale Earnhardt. And I have with me Dr. Steve Bohannon, who's a prominent doctor here in Daytona that's worked several events here at the speedway, and he can explain the medical practice that went on at the accident scene and over at the hospital.

In a timing issue, we're here to tell you what we know. We don't know a lot. We don't know enough to answer all your questions. Our prayers and wishes and our effort right now this moment is with Theresa and the Earnhardt family, Richard Childress and his family, and Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. But I'll have Dr. Bohannon take it from here for right now.

DR. STEVE BOHANNON: I was on one of the ambulances that responded to the accident. I was about the third or fourth ambulance, and when I arrived, there were a number of paramedics attending to him. There was a paramedic in through the passenger window applying oxygen by a mask. Dr. Tim Allison (ph), who's a trauma surgeon from Flagler county, who was in through the driver's window and was delivering CPR. And there was another paramedic in the window with him helping maintain the C-spine, holding the head.

There were a number of firefighters that were on top of the car attempting to remove the roof, which was subsequently done. That took about five or 10 minutes, during which time we did CPR. When the roof came off, Dr. Allison and I both identified this was a vary bad situation, a load-and-go situation. We -- immediately, we moved him and transported him to the area level 2 trauma center, Halifax Hospital. Transport time was about a minute to a minute-and-a-half, during which time we continued CPR.

There was a full trauma team there to meet him. A trauma neurosurgeon, Dr. Bill Koon (ph); trauma surgeon, Dr. Demuga (ph). There were several emergency room doctors there as well. We all did everything we could for him. Additionally, there was an anesthesiologist who helped us maintain the airway.

But he had what I feel were life-ending type injuries at the time of impact and really nothing could be done for him.

He arrived at the hospital at 1654. The full trauma resuscitation was attempted for about a little over 20 minutes, at which time he was placed on a ventilator. Multiple IV lines were given, IV fluids, chest tubes, various diagnostic tests.

He never showed any signs of life, and subsequently was pronounced dead by all the physicians in attendance at 1716.

His wife was there at the bedside.

And that's about all I know at this time. He has been turned over to the medical examiner's office and will be a medical examiner's case. I suspect an autopsy will be done, probably tomorrow, for the exact cause of death.

My speculation as an emergency physician would be head injuries, particularly to the base of the skull, that ended his life. He was unconscious, unresponsive from the time of the first paramedic's arrival. He was not breathing and had no palpable pulse from the time of the paramedic's arrival at the scene, and remained -- remained that way throughout.

That's all I have.

QUESTION: Dr. Bohannon...

BOHANNON: Yes. QUESTION: I understand (OFF-MIKE) if you think that that's the kind of device that (OFF-MIKE)?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Please let me repeat the question for those up in the press box. The question was for Dr. Bohannon about the Haunt (ph) device: if Dale Earnhardt had been using that, would that have saved his life?

BOHANNON: I really don't know if that would have or not. That would be pure speculation at this point, not knowing the exact cause of death. I know a full-face helmet would not have made any difference whatsoever. He had no evidence of facial injuries. I don't know if the haunt device would have helped or not. I suspect not.


BOHANNON: B-O-H-A-N-N-O-N. First name's Steve, M.D. I'm an emergency physician at Halifax Hospital.

QUESTION: Since when?

BOHANNON: Since 1986. And I'm also the EMS medical director of the emergency medical services here at the speedway.


BOHANNON: He had blood in his airway. He had blood in the ears that we see with Baesler (ph) skull fractures, but really no other external evidence of trauma, no.

QUESTION: Sir, could you repeat (OFF-MIKE)...

BOHANNON: Steve Bohannon.

HELTON: Folks, there's no question that this is a very difficult time. I think Bill France's quote that the speedway and NASCAR will put out there in a second sums it up for the moment. There will be other press conferences and other opportunities to answer questions as we get more answers.

But his quote is, is that "NASCAR has lost its greatest driver ever," and I have personally have lost a great friend. And that's Bill France's quote, and I think that pretty well sums it up for the NASCAR community right now.



NELSON: You've been listening to NASCAR -- I'm sorry -- NASCAR President Mike Helton, saying that NASCAR has lost the "greatest NASCAR driver ever." And Dr. Steve Bohannon, the EMS director at the Daytona International Speedway, describing the final moments of the life of 49-year-old Dale Earnhardt, the NASCAR giant and legend. He was fatally injured in a crash this afternoon at the Daytona 500. He was taken in serious condition to hospital and he died of massive chest injuries.

Let's bring in CNNSI's John Giannone for more details -- John.

GIANNONE: Yeah, in fact, word just starting to filter around the racetrack, and there's a small group of fans standing behind me right now. And you can just see the pain etched on their faces. Dale Earnhardt was an enormously popular driver, has been on the Winston Cup circuit since 1979, is a seven-time Winston Cup point series champion, and that was a record he tied with the great Richard Petty last year. It was a record he stated flat-out he wanted to break some time this year or next.

In fact, earlier this week he said: "The best is yet to come. I still have a championship to win."

But as we know now, Dale Earnhardt died earlier today in a terrible accident on the final turn of the final lap of this race, a race won by Michael Waltrip, who was driving a car owned by Dale Earnhardt. The person who came in second, Dale Earnhardt's son, Dale Jr. He climbed out of his car immediately after the race was over, raced to his father's side, spend the entire trip to the hospital with him, and was by his side when Dale Earnhardt passed away.

And Dale Earnhardt won 34 races at this track. Nobody ever won more, and that's the legacy he will leave here. Dale Earnhardt, 34 race victories at Daytona. In fact, he had a victory here in each of the last 10 years.

His greatest victory occurred three years ago in 1998, when he stood on the podium right behind me and accepted the trophy as the Daytona 500 champion.

So again, tremendous pain on the faces of the fans here at Daytona. Word has not yet filtered to the drivers, because most if not all of them have private jets and leave the track immediately after the race. So most of the drivers are either en route to or already at their homes. And certainly, the shock and the reality will begin sitting in when news reaches them that Dale Earnhardt has died.

NELSON: John, this was the second accident of the day, wasn't it?

GIANNONE: Yeah, in fact, that's the amazing part of it, is the 18-car collision that occurred on lap 173 was actually more vicious- looking. I mean, a few cars went air-bound. One car landed on the roof of another car. But really, no serious injuries in that. One driver, Tony Stewart, suffered an injured collarbone. But other than that, there were really no injuries, and that was really a testament to how safe these cars are.

But the problem is when you go straight on into a wall going 180 miles an hour, as Dale Earnhardt did, there's really very little that can happen. Neil Bonnett, a great Winston Cup driver, died here at this track by running into a wall at 200 miles an hour back in 1994. And in fact, this is the third fatality among NASCAR Winston Cup drivers in the last nine months.

19-year-old Adam Petty, the grandson of the great Richard Petty and son of Kyle Petty, died last May, and then in July Kenny Irwin died in New Hampshire at the same New Hampshire track as Petty.

NELSON: I was asking a friend of Earnhardt's just a moment ago about an accident they had in 1999, at the end of which he was giving some consideration to retirement. Do you know much about that?

GIANNONE: Yeah, there obviously is talk when you get up in age a little bit and you have an accident of that magnitude. But I think Dale Earnhardt was really rejuvenated last year when he realized that he might still be able to win a Winston Cup points championship. He finished second last year to Bobby Labonte, and that really revved his engines for this year.

And as I said before, his stated goal was to win an eighth Winston Cup point series championships and truly be considered the greatest driver of all time.

So while there were times -- I know a few years back Dale Earnhardt suffered a broken collarbone and he also was having problems with blacking out at the wheel, if you can believe that, at almost 200 miles an hour, those problems were rectified. And Dale Earnhardt was absolutely rejuvenated in the last two years and anxiously looked forward to trying to break that record.

NELSON: John, he was 49 years old. Are there many drivers that age? Was he the oldest on the track at the time?

GIANNONE: No, not the oldest. There are drivers who are older than him. In fact, Dave Marcus (ph) is a driver who didn't qualify this year for the Daytona 500, but he's a driver who is up around 61, 62 years of age. So while 49 isn't young, it isn't really old either. And Dale Earnhardt was beginning to branch out, was beginning to expand his business.

As I said, the drivers who finished one and two in this race -- Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- were driving Chevrolet Monte Carlos that were owned by Dale Earnhardt. So certainly his business was branching out. He lived on an enormous farmhouse, a beautiful mansion in North Carolina. He had a private plane, as most drivers do.

He made $41 1/2 million in career earnings on the Winston Cup circuit. So certainly Dale Earnhardt still had the passion for driving, and all you had to ever do was watch him behind the wheel of a car during a race to know just how passionate he was about the profession. So there really was no evidence or no sign that Dale Earnhardt was ready to pack it in as a driver.

NELSON: John, could you give us your sense of what this is going to mean in the way of a loss to NASCAR?

GIANNONE: Enormous. I wish I could come up with an adjective worse than that, or you know, that would better portray the image. Again, I just look at the faces of the people who are standing behind my camera right now, probably a group of about 20 of them, who are just devastated by this news. I mean, standing there stone-faced, no expression other than you can just tell the abject -- the abject amount of pity they have not only for Dale and his family, but also just the sense of loss of, as I have described before, an enormously popular NASCAR driver, somebody who, as I said, you couldn't go five feet in the infield at Daytona or any track on the Winston Cup circuit without seeing some kind of Dale Earnhardt paraphernalia, whether it's shirts of flags or hats. And he was just enormous, and this is just a monumental loss.

NELSON: All right. Thank you, CNN's John Giannone, for your insight. We appreciate it.

Once again for our viewers who are just joining us, 49-year-old Dale Earnhardt has died as a result of injuries sustained in a crash in the last lap of the Daytona 500 this afternoon. His son was with him at the time in the hospital at the Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach. And all of NASCAR, all of his fans are now in mourning.

We will continue to follow this story throughout the evening, and we will take a short break, then join "LATE EDITION," which is in progress, after this break.



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