I have covered one auto racing event in my career. I expect that will be the only one I ever will. And that would be just fine with me. I have never, ever, felt so in-over-my-head on an assignment as I did on Race Day at the Daytona 500 in 2001.
I spent most of that week in Daytona feeling my way around the garages, trying to talk to head mechanics and drivers and owners, writing about some run-up races to the big one on Sunday. I remember I talked somebody — don’t remember who it was — into giving me a tour of a trailer, the garages on wheels where teams store their cars as they transport them from race to race.
The whole experience was cool, in that it was so different. But, hoo boy, I knew then as much about cars and racing as I do now. Which is: Cars race. One finishes first. The person who’s driving that car is declared the winner.
To say I was unprepared and unqualified to cover the 500 that year — or any year before or since — would be a gargantuan understatement. But I was about as qualified to cover it as anyone who worked at CNN/SI (a short-lived merging of CNN and Sports Illustrated) at that time, with the exception of my partner, Mike Fish, who had just joined the website from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Fish was more of a sports business guy, but he knew racing, and he was going to do the meaty stuff. I also leaned heavily on a good old Southern boy who covered racing for the NASCAR site (which was run by Turner Sports at the time), the likable, unbelievably helpful Marty Smith. If I had a question about how things were done, I went to Marty. I wouldn’t have made it through the week without him. As it turns out, I barely did.
When the 500 rolled around, I was stuck watching the race from an auxiliary press area in the infield. I couldn’t see much of the race from where I was, which wasn’t all that heart-breaking to me, considering I didn’t know much about what I was watching anyway. Plus, on the press totem pole at that time, CNN/SI was on the bottom looking up. Nobody then quite knew what to make of websites, or sports websites, and especially sports websites connected to a relatively new TV network (it was about 4 years old at the time) that few had ever heard of and fewer still cared about.
So, being nobodies relegated to the only place they could find to put us, there were no TVs near us. There were no media relations people there to help out. (Most, if not all of them, were up in the main press box, on the other side of the track.) I could see glimpses of the race as it went on if I stepped outside, just quick blurs in gaps between the buildings and the people and cars. But it was clear early on that day that I was going to have to play this one safe: Wait until the race is over, follow the lead of the writing pros around me in who to interview and what questions to ask, and stay, as they say in the racing biz, in my lane. Straight down the middle, as they say in golf.
I planned on choking up when it came time to write. I just wanted to put the ball in play, for crissakes.
(In times of sports stress, I find it strangely comforting to fall back on sports clichés.)
The day was going to be hard enough, I knew. And then the worst happened.
On the last lap of the Daytona 500 that year, late on a warm and sunny afternoon at Daytona International Speedway, Dale Earnhardt, the most famous driver in the sport — arguably the most famous driver the sport ever has seen — spun on the last turn of the race, nicked ever so slightly by another driver. Earnhardt’s car skidded sideways as another car pushed him along from the side, then his tires caught hold and the car abruptly headed up the bank toward the track’s outside wall, hitting it head on.
As winner Michael Waltrip crossed the finish line (and Earnhardt’s son, Dale Jr., finished second), more than 150,000 people rose from the stands at the 2.5-mile track to cheer. Back on Turn 4, Earnhardt’s car slid down the bank and into the infield. The ambulance came, workers pulled “The Intimidator” out of his wreck and they headed straight to the hospital.
And that’s where, a few hours later, Dale Earnhardt Sr. was pronounced dead.
The biggest name in a wildly popular sport, in the sport’s showcase event, died in a wreck on the last lap of the race. On the very last turn.
It’s been more than 15 years since that day. It remains the most horrific day in NASCAR history. Those in the sport call it Black Sunday.
To a sports writer in a place he probably never should have been in, that day remains a blur.
Hours after the wreck, I leaned into a packed press conference in the infield to try to hear what a NASCAR official had to say. The murmurs had been going on for some time, but when the word officially came down that Earnhardt had died, it was almost incredible. Literally incredible. Even veteran race writers were dumbstruck.
I’d been a reporter at that time for maybe eight or 10 years. I’d been on assignments that I little or nothing about. A governmental meeting in Truk. A meeting of some Micronesian group in Ponape. I’d been in big-time pressure situations. Super Bowls. World Series. NBA Finals. Bowl games. A Final Four or two. I felt like I knew what to do in pretty much any circumstance.
But … people don’t die in Super Bowls. Nobody dies in a baseball game.
The Intimidator was just killed in a horrific crash. This wasn’t a thing at the time, but I know I must’ve been thinking: WTF?
I got with Fish, somehow, in the mess. The plan was, he’d do the mainbar about Earnhardt’s death. I’d pound out the race story, which was a good plan, considering that no one cared a crap about the race at this point. And I’d also do a reaction piece from fans.
I remember wandering around the infield, scouting for race fans, approaching RVs and cars and looking for anyone who would talk. I’m guessing I got a fan or two, but I don’t remember. I got both stories done, I think. I have no idea how, and I’d bet we worked well into the middle of the night to get them done.
I remember looking at the stories later and remarking, to myself, how bad both of them were. I think — I hope — both are lost to the internet ether forever.
In my sports scribing days, I turned down one assignment that I can remember. When I got to Cincinnati early on, an editor asked me to cover an exhibition hockey game at what was then Riverfront Coliseum. I had never covered hockey. I didn’t know icing from whipped cream. I turned it down and prepared never to be asked to do anything again. The next day, the editor asked me to do a women’s beach volleyball tournament. I had never covered that, either. I jumped at it.
In retrospect, I probably should have turned down Daytona. I just didn’t know enough about anything to do a good job there. You have to know what you don’t know, you know? I know that now.
But we were a fledgling site at the time, and covering the 500, we thought, would raise our profile among the sports powers. Plus, I was in Florida for more than Daytona anyway. Daytona, all along, was just a tune-up for me.
On Monday, Feb. 19, 2001, the day after Earnhardt died, I checked out of my hotel and drove to Orlando for my first spring training. I wandered from there to Tampa and over to the Space Coast. I spent a couple weeks there, figuring out when to hang around the batting cages, how to approach players for interviews, what fielding drills were worthwhile to watch and which weren’t. I learned the secret code to the elevator at the stadium at Disney World. I met people. I got phone numbers. I did reportery stuff. I covered baseball for the site for the next eight years.
When it comes to covering sports events, I can’t imagine I’ll ever do anything harder than Daytona in 2001. I’m older now. Wiser. I know what I don’t know.
Still, I’m glad I did it. I’m even more glad I won’t ever have to do it again.