- The start of the 1997 Southern 500 produced one of the most bizarre moments in Dale Earnhardt’s long and illustrious career.
- On the first green-flag lap of the race, Earnhardt’s familiar black Chevrolet slammed into the outside wall in Turn 1, and it was‘t due to any contact from another car.
- “He was groggy before the race started,” said team owner Richard Childress of Earnhardt. “We couldn’t communicate on the radio.
It was a Southern 500 that no one in Dale Earnhardt’s inner circle in particular – and his vast fan network in general – is likely to forget.
31 August 1997. Darlington Racecourse.
Starting the race 25 years ago resulted in one of the most bizarre moments in Earnhardt’s long and illustrious career.
The trouble started in the minutes leading up to the race when the typical pre-race radio conversation between the driver and the pit crew: “Any problems? “Ready to go?” “Good luck there” – produced the first mystery of the day.
“He was groggy before the race started,” said team owner Richard Childress of Earnhardt. “We couldn’t communicate on the radio.
Recognizing that Earnhardt might be in trouble, Childress tried to goad him into dropping on pit road during the parade laps, but Earnhardt was unresponsive.
On the first green-flag lap of the race, Earnhardt’s familiar black Chevrolet slammed into the outside wall at Turn 1. The idea that he may have just made a mistake or punctured a tire disappeared when virtually the same thing happened in turn 2. Obviously something was wrong with the car or with Earnhardt.
Over the radio, the #3 crew attempted to direct Earnhardt to pit road.
Veteran race photographer Phil Cavali was standing in a team car along pit road when Earnhardt’s car came to a stop at Turn 2.
“Security ran and pulled the net down from the window, and the next thing I know they pulled it out of the car,” Cavali said. “They carried it across the track and across the pit road. They brought him under the box where I was standing. They had an oxygen mask on him and his uniform was open. It looked like he had his eyes closed, like he was totally beside himself or somewhat dazed.
Indeed, it was a shocking visual to those on the scene. Earnhardt, one of the toughest runners of his generation, lay seemingly unconscious or very close as one of the biggest races of the season roared on without him.
In the bustling panorama that marks the start of a NASCAR race on the sport’s oldest major track, there was more than a little tension around one of the sport’s pivots.
In the Earnhardt pit, confusion reigned. Although Earnhardt was a little quieter than normal during the pre-race, there was no need to worry. The veteran driver was sometimes so quiet and composed before practices or races that he fell asleep in the car.
“We were busy getting the car ready and I hadn’t seen Dale that morning,” said longtime Richard Childress Racing team member Danny “Chocolate” Myers. “Sometimes he was there; sometimes not. But everything seemed as normal as possible. Then, all of a sudden, we hear the bang against the wall.
When Earnhardt failed to fall on pit road, it became apparent that something was wrong inside the car. Now there were two big worries in the RCR pit: What was wrong with Earnhardt? And, if he couldn’t continue competing, who would drive his car?
“What were we going to do?” Myers said. “I remember people started looking for Mike Dillon (a NASCAR No. 2 series regular and Childress’s son-in-law). He had run the day before. We had to check with NASCAR to see if it was OK. This all had to happen quickly. »
Dillon raced to the RCR pit and got into Earnhardt’s car. He would finish 30th, earning that spot for Earnhardt, who was credited with the result because he started the race in the car. Dillon would only officially race in one Cup race in his career, that of the following year.
Earnhardt was transported to the care center at the track ground. Childress spoke to him briefly there and reported his driver was alert before being taken to a hospital in nearby Florence for observation and testing.
In the track’s control tower, NASCAR officials watched the Earnhardt drama unfold even as they directed the start of the race. Among those present were competition manager (and future NASCAR president) Mike Helton and director of business operations Kevin Triplett, who three years earlier had worked as Earnhardt’s public relations director.
“A, you don’t see things like that happen, and B, you haven’t seen it from the driver of that car,” Triplett said. ” It did not work. There was no real pre-race indication of the issues. He sat in his car and slept the whole time, so looking at him and seeing him nodding in the car would have been as common as hearing, “Gentlemen, start your engines.”
Triplett immediately went to the care center. “There was confusion, and I don’t mean from the doctors,” he said. “People on the team, the looks on their faces showed confusion over what had happened.”
Jeff Gordon ultimately won the race (and a $1 million bonus), and fans left the circuit with no clear information about what had happened to Earnhardt.
Helton and Triplett visited Earnhardt in hospital in Florence after the race. “He was alert, like there was nothing wrong,” Triplett said. “But there had been no conclusion on what had happened.”
NASCAR officials quickly told Earnhardt he would have to undergo a series of medical tests before being cleared to race next weekend in Richmond, Va.
A team of doctors examined Earnhardt at a hospital in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, found no cause for his problem early in Darlington’s race, and declared him OK to race in Richmond.
At a press conference in Richmond at the start of race weekend, Earnhardt said doctors had checked him for anything other than pregnancy. Up and looking fit and strong after a tense week, he gave every indication he didn’t expect any health issues in the future. “I’m confident it won’t happen again,” he said.
Triplett stood next to Earnhardt as he spoke.
“He had been through a battery of tests,” Triplett said. “One of the doctors who had done the tests was there. He was a neurosurgeon and had treated that kind of stuff. He found nothing that would have stopped him from running. Dale felt good. He was healthy with no residual effects. It was almost like it was just a little episode.
“None of us who didn’t go to medical school know all the details, but we know enough to know that it was concerning. Here you have a guy who has always had a reputation for being strong like a bull, and you look at it without even any visible symptoms. Wow, what happened?”
Earnhardt’s incident in Darlington 25 years ago happened during one of the valleys of his career. Left that afternoon, he had not won since March 1996. His career had been in statistical decline since his seventh (and last) championship in 1994.
He won five races in 1995, two in 1996, none in 1997 and only six from 1998 to 2000.
Did you catch the 1997 South 500 at Darlington Racecourse? Share your memories in the comments below.