DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., Feb. 18 -- Dale Earnhardt, one of the most famous drivers in the history of motor racing and one of the most recognized figures in American sports, died Sunday of injuries suffered in a crash that occurred during the final lap of the Daytona 500.
Earnhardt, winner of a record-equaling seven NASCAR Winston Cup series championships, was 49. A medical staff member at the scene of the wreck said he believed Earnhardt died instantly when the car, less than a half mile from the finish line, slammed into the wall traveling at close to 180 miles an hour.
Known for his attacking style of driving throughout a legendary career, Earnhardt died because he was trying to keep other racers from catching the two cars leading the race. The race was won by Michael Waltrip, who was driving a car owned by Earnhardt, and the runner-up was Earnhardt's son, Dale, Jr.
The accident occurred just as Waltrip was crossing the finish line with Earnhardt effectively blocking a group of cars about 200 yards behind. Earnhardt's car appeared to come in contact with that of Sterlin Marlin. Earnhardt's car lost control and struck the wall in the fourth turn of the Daytona Motor Speedway.
While Waltrip was celebrating in victory lane and not knowing of the tragedy that was unfolding, safety crews had to cut Earnhardt out of his race car. A large blue tarpaulin, normally used in the event of a serious crash, was placed over the wreckage to shield it from view.
Earnhardt was rushed to a nearby hospital and because of the lack of early information, it became obvious to those at the track that the worst might have occurred.
Finally, NASCAR president and chief operating officer Mike Helton appeared at a news conference.
"This is one of the toughest announcements I've ever had to make, but we've lost Dale Earnhardt," Helton said. "Our prayers are with Teresa Earnhardt and her family."
Dr. Steve Bohannon described the scene at the wreckage.
"There was a doctor delivering CPR, a number of firefighters attempting to remove the roof and it was done in five or 10 minutes," Bohannon said. "We identified this was a very bad situation. We immediately moved him to Halifax Medical Center. There was a full trauma team there to meet him.
"We all did everything we could for him. He had what I felt were life-ending injuries at the time of impact. He never showed any signs of life. His wife was there at the bedside.
"It has been turned over to the medical examiner's office, where an autopsy will be done for cause of death. My speculation would be head injuries to the base of the skull that ended his life. He was unconscious and unresponsive. He was not breathing and had no pulse."
NASCAR president Bill France Jr issued a release that said, "NASCAR has lost its greatest driver and I have personally lost a great friend."
"To lose our most prolific race car driver is difficult for all of us to comprehend," said Derrike Cope, who won the Daytona 500 in 1990. "It was a vicious crash. He had no time to react at all. It is difficult to watch.
"The sense I had at the end of the race was that he had his driver and his son up at the front and he was playing defense. That was not the Dale Earnhardt you usually saw."
The enormous loss to the sport will be felt throughout the country, a fact not lost on those who manage tracks where NASCAR races.
"It's hard to put into words what the loss of Dale Earnhardt means," said the president of Martinsville Speedway, Clay Campbell. "I feel without question he was the greatest driver we have ever had. At a time when the popularity of NASCAR has been rapidly growing across this country, we can thank Dale Earnhardt for a lot of that attention.
"The fan base he enjoyed is unparalleled in this sport."
Driver Ken Schrader was also collected in the crash, but said he did not see what caused Earnhardt's Chevrolet to lose control.
"I don't know for sure what happened," Schrader said. "I guess someone got into Dale because Dale got into me and then we went up. We hit pretty hard and Dale hit harder. I don't know what happened. All of a sudden we were all crashing."
Earnhardt won 76 NASCAR races in 676 starts. He won the Daytona 500 for the first and only time three years ago. His seven series championships equal the total achieved by another legendary stock car driver, Richard Petty.
Although he won the Daytona 500 only once, Earnhardt was the all-time leader at Daytona International Speedway with 34 victories.
Following the crash, team owner Richard Childress radioed to Earnhardt, "Dale, tell me if you are OK. Dale, tell me if you are OK. Dale, tell me if you are OK."
"A full-face helmet would not have made any difference whatsoever," Bohannon said. "He had no facial injuries. He had blood in his airway, blood in his ears, what you see with skull fractures."
Famous for his black No. 3 Chevrolet and push-broom moustache, Earnhardt's loss touched all involved in NASCAR, including his fiercest competitors.
"Dale Earnhardt transcended NASCAR," Ford Racing Technology director Dan Davis said. "His loss will have an effect on racing and its fans worldwide. I'm not sure you can measure the impact of what he meant to racing in this country because when you picture the epitome of a race car driver, you picture Dale Earnhardt. We're deeply saddened by this loss."
"After the race was over, I heard things didn't look very good," said fellow competitor Jeremy Mayfield. But, man ... Earnhardt. My heart goes out to his family."
Earnhardt was the 27th driver to die at Daytona since it opened in 1959. He was the first Winston Cup driver to die in a race since J.D. McDuffie at Watkins Glen in August 1991.
The Daytona 500 was the second Winston Cup race in which cars were allowed to run under new modifications, including a larger restrictor plate with an aerodynamic package that would make the cars more raceable.
The goal was to create more racing opportunities, keep the field closer together and allow more passing -- and it worked. Sunday's race had 50 lead changes among 14 drivers.
But many drivers admitted the new rules could create a big crash because so many cars raced so close together. Earlier in the week, driver Jeff Burton offered an eerie premonition of things to come.
"I think it's a recipe fora huge wreck and there will be a huge wreck," Burton said. "If we keep running like this, inevitably, it's going to happen. It has to."
What could have been a glorious day in Winston Cup annals instead became perhaps the most devastating day in the modern history of the sport, which lost one of its great champions.
Earnhardt rarely took his foor off the accelarator on the track or off it. He was a tireless promoter of stock car racing and helped take the sport national from its roots in the deep South.
He also was known for his hard-nosed driving style, which was frowned upon and criticized by others. However, no one could argue with his success.
His 76 victories rank sixth on the all-time list and he had 281 top-five finishes in a 26-year Winston Cup career. He made 676 starts and earned more than $41 million. He won 10 times at Talladega, Ala., nine times at Bristol, Tenn., and eight times at both Atlanta and Darlington, S.C.
Earnhardt was the first driver in series history to win Rookie of the Year honors (1979) and the Winston Cup title (1980). His most impressive campaign came in 1992, when he won 12 of the 29 races held.
Last year, he finished second in the points championship for the third time, collecting two wins, 13 top-five finishes and 24 top-10s.
Earnhardt's success allowed him to become an owner of the cars driven by Waltrip, Steve Park and Dale Earnhardt Jr., his son who is an emerging star on the Winston Cup circuit.