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CNN Today

NASCAR Community Grieving for Dale Earnhardt

Aired February 19, 2001 - 4:01 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: In the world of stock-car racing, today marks 1 a.d.: the beginning of life "after Dale." Dale Earnhardt died at Daytona, where a patchwork shrine is growing today through the gifts of many, many grieving fans. We learned this afternoon the official cause of death, according to the coroner: "blunt force injuries" to the head.

Earnhardt crashed his black No. 3 in the final lap of yesterday's Daytona 500.

For race fans everywhere, including in Earnhardt's home community in Mooresville, North Carolina, it is an utterly devastating moment. You see live pictures now of the growing shrine, personal mementos, made by many people who are mourning the loss of Dale Earnhardt today.

Despite the meteoric rise of NASCAR, through all this time, Earnhardt led the way. NASCAR's chairman says simply, "This sport has lost its greatest driver ever."

Joining us now, CNN's Susan Candiotti, who is in Daytona, where NASCAR held a news conference in just the past hour. Susan, a lot of memories today.

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's for sure, Joie. In fact, Dale Earnhardt's death is being called one of the major events of NASCAR history. And at that news conference that ended not long ago, in fact, they discussed the preliminary autopsy results, listing the cause of death as massive head injuries suffered when Earnhardt's car at 180 miles per hour smacked into a concrete wall.

Michael Waltrip, who raced for Dale Earnhardt and whose first win was overshadowed by Earnhardt's death, weighed in on the question as to whether these HANS devices should be mandatory for all NASCAR drivers. "HAN" stands for head and-neck-restraints. And Michael Waltrip said that in his view, even though Formula One drivers, it is mandatory for them to wear them -- of course, it's easier for them to jump out of the cockpit of their car whereas a NASCAR is constructed, of course, differently -- he said that in his view, it's a -- that's decision that should be made on an individual basis.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL WALTRIP, NASCAR RACER: There's mixed reviews about it. People like the way it stabilizes your head in an incident. But people also are concerned about it's cumbersome and hard to get in and out of the car, which would be a concern during an accident as well.

So the area inside of the race car, where I sit, when I'm in there with all of my stuff on, the belts and my helmet, that's my responsibility. I try to make sure that I take all the -- gain all the knowledge I can for what's out there to be as safe as I possibly can.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CANDIOTTI: Now one of the doctors treating Dale Earnhardt said that in his view, in an accident like the one that happened yesterday, hitting a wall at such a high rate of speed, that no human body could survive a crash like this and that he did not think that a HANS device would have made a difference in this kind of an accident.

Now, fans of Dale Earnhardt returned, many of them, to the Daytona International Speedway this day, and many of them shed tears, shared memories with each other, left mementos behind, left written messages -- all in an effort to the remember a legendary driver, a memorial for a man that is known now as one of NASCAR's greatest drivers ever.

Dale Earnhardt dead at 49.

Joie, back to you.

CHEN: Susan Candiotti reporting to us from Daytona.

The cold numbers will never begin to describe Dale Earnhardt's legacy or what he meant to his sport. But for the record, the man known as "The Intimidator" was a seven-time winner of NASCAR's Winston Cup, sort of like winning the Super Bowl seven times. Three years ago, he won his first and only Daytona 500. He ran first at Daytona in a slew of other events, though.

His career winnings, more than $41 million.

If some people live on the edge, Dale Earnhardt spent his professional life perched above the abyss, and there was an earlier moment when he almost fell in. He spoke several years ago about the wreck at Talladega.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DALE EARNHARDT, NASCAR RACER: That was an exciting crash.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To who? To you?

EARNHARDT: Well, to go through it and realize and be aware of everything that was going on.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You were aware of it all?

EARNHARDT: Oh, yeah. The wall, seeing the wall coming, and the car was spinning. See the other cars hitting. And the car was upside down. The car was upside down. There was a car hitting on the top. You can see flashes. And when the car was back on its wheels, sliding to its halt, there was cars hitting it. The whole time I was aware of everything.

When the guys got to me, they started climbing or trying to get into the car to help me. And I told them, I said, just relax, I'm okay. "I'm hurt, but I'm OK," is I think the words I said. Don't cut the top off. because when a big accident happened, they all go cutting the top off. It looks bad from the stands, and I'm so involved with NASCAR and so concerned about how the public sees us and views us is that I said, don't cut the top off.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHEN: Dale Earnhardt in his own words about a previous crash he was in.

The e-mail tributes to Dale Earnhardt are pouring into those many Web sites devoted to racing, including nascar.com. Joining us now, one of the veteran writers at the NASCAR site, Tim Packman, a racing writer for more than three decades. He's at the headquarters of Earnhardt Incorporated in Mooresville, North Carolina.

Nascar.com, by the way, is part of the AOL Time Warner family.

Tim, we appreciate you're being with us this hour. Put it in perspective for us. What did Dale Earnhardt mean to NASCAR?

TIM PACKMAN, NASCAR.COM: Dale Earnhardt was NASCAR. I mean, he was the man. When you talk about NASCAR and what it means to the guy that, you know, built the house or the guy that sat in the boardroom, the guy that built the house identified with Dale Earnhardt, because he was the one who came from, you know, a mill town -- Kannapolis, North Carolina -- worked his way up to get everything he could, and little by little, and built the empire that he has. And the guy that's sitting in a boardroom, he wanted to be like Dale Earnhardt, wanted to be the man.

And whenever you're watching a race, like him or not, you always want to know what's Earnhardt doing. And the -- it's one of those sad things is this Sunday we're going to have a first race in a long time without Dale Earnhardt in the lineup.

CHEN: Another North Carolina sports figure, of course, Michael Jordan. I mean, Dale Earnhardt occupied the same sort of place in his sport.

PACKMAN: Yeah, when you think of NASCAR, you think of Dale Earnhardt. And he went through his period where, you know, he was -- he was liked, he wasn't liked, and then he came back to being a fan favorite again. And you go to Lowe's Motor Speedway, and they call his name and the fans go nuts, and he takes the lead, and they all stand up and go crazy.

I mean, there was Dale Earnhardt, and other tracks, too: Wherever you went in the country, when Dale Earnhardt took to the track, people wanted to know what he was doing and where he was going. And when he made a move on the track, it was like, wow, look at Earnhardt go, that was magical. And he had some magical moves on that track.

CHEN: In that little quote we just heard from Dale Earnhardt, talking about his crash at Talladega, the thing that struck me is him saying, look, I know how it look in the stands, I know how it looks when the fans see the roof cut off. He didn't want to see his own top cut off. He knew what that would mean to the fans.

He really did a lot to create the image of NASCAR, and really it's sort of a critical moment his death comes for NASCAR and sort of reaching a wider audience.

PACKMAN: Yeah, that was one thing, that there were going to be more and more people that were going to get to know Dale Earnhardt the driver and Dale Earnhardt the man, because you know, lately he was very -- how do I say? -- he was having more fun. I guess he was smiling more. He was having a good time with racing again. And you talked about when he said, don't cut the roof off, this is also the same guy that flipped a couple years at Daytona and got back in the car.

He was in the ambulance when he realized it had four wheels, could start. And another time he got hurt, and he made the ambulance crew go by his crew, stop along pit row, and they just opened the door, and he said, I'm all right, guys, don't worry about it. And then they went and they took him to the infield care center. I mean, he was a man's man.

I mean, the word I use to describe him was a gladiator. I mean, he took what equipment he had to fight the fight, and he went out there and did it. And he was a gladiator.

CHEN: I know you've probably seen this image earlier in the day. It's been playing a lot. It is the shot that begins with Dale's vision, the last moments before the crash. And as you see there. And then the follow-up pictures.

These are shocking pictures to all of us now, of course, because we realize how much it means. And there is going to be a lot of this second-guessing about HANS system and what difference it might have made here.

We've heard what the doctors say about this. What do you think the perspective is going to be? In the end, would it have made any a difference?

PACKMAN: I can't tell. I wasn't in the car. We don't really know what exactly happened in the car yet, and he had the open-face helmet, and he was -- he was all for the open-face helmet. And the HANS device was something he really didn't -- didn't want to use yet. Maybe down the road he might have wanted to wear it, but you know, I can't say what happened exactly inside the car to cause his the death, you know, from the skull injury and that. And so the HANS device is something that other drivers are starting to look at, and Michael Waltrip said (UNINTELLIGIBLE) earlier. He said, when I'm in the cockpit, it's my decision what I want to do in there. That's my domain, and I'm the one who has to decide what happens inside that cockpit and what I'm going to wear and what I'm not going to wear.

CHEN: Just a quick answer here. Do you think that his death coming in such a tragic way and getting as much attention as it is getting, do you think that's going to affect the popularity of NASCAR right now? Is it going to put the brakes on a little bit?

PACKMAN: I don't think it'll put the brakes on, because, you know, as Mike Helton said earlier, they're going to crank it up this weekend i Rockingham and they're going to go on racing. It's the way they make a living.

Popularity, you know, good or bad, the notoriety and the attention that is being brought to it is -- I'm not going to say I'm surprised, but it's been something else.

CHEN: Tim, thanks very much.

PACKMAN: Thank you.

CHEN: Tim Packman joining us from Mooresville, North Carolina.

In many ways, this is a story about racing fans. After all, Dale Earnhardt was far and away the fans' No. 1 choice.

Today, we've heard more than one racing enthusiast say they had hoped it was all a bad dream. But it was not.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm still in shock. I mean, this man was an icon to the sport. This sport will never be the same. Absolutely never.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know if I can watch racing again. I mean, it's because of him that I started watching. And this is not going to be the same.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When they got up this morning, for those who could sleep, probably everyone realized that this wasn't a dream anymore, that this actually happened to -- to me, the greatest person in NASCAR.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's just been unbelievable, the outpour from the community. I mean, he is Mooresville. He's made Mooresville and people are thankful for that and they're going to greatly miss him.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It didn't matter if he lost or if he won. I mean, you were still -- you were a true fan, and I think that's one thing. When you see an Earnhardt fan, you see one that doesn't flip- flop back and forth. I mean, there are true fans.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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