20 years since the tragic 2001 Daytona 500, safety on the forefront

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 16: General view of cars during a parade lap before the start of the NASCAR Cup Series 62nd Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 16, 2020 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — As we gear up towards the 63rd edition of the Daytona 500, we can’t help but to look back to 20 years ago either. See, Dale Earnhardt has a rich lasting legacy in the motorsports world. A seven-time Cup Series champion with 76 career wins to his credit. Earnhardt, will forever go down as one of the best, if not THE best, NASCAR driver to ever come around this sport. 

But, that dark day on Feb. 18, 2001, 20 year ago to be exact, well it also adds to Earnhardt’s legacy in a wild way if you think about it. That crash caused a drastic shift in terms of safety in NASCAR’s world. It was that moment to where it was time to do something about it. 

Earnhardt’s death followed a deadly year on the race track in 2000. NASCAR lost Kenny Irwin Jr. in a practice crash in New Hampshire that season. That comes a few months after Adam Petty was tragically killed in an eerily similar fashion in a Busch Series practice on that same track. Tony Roper would get killed in a crash during a Truck Series race at Texas in Oct. 2000. 

Then you get to Earnhardt’s last lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. 

In wake of that dark day in NASCAR, major changes occurred on the safety front. Following four deaths that resulted in similar injuries in an eight month span, it was time to get serious about safety. 

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NASCAR then mandated the HANS device. They updated the rules and processes for the seats that the drivers sit in as well as their seat belts. They made it mandatory for all tracks that they’d race at to have a SAFER barrier. 

This all led to the debut of the COT. That has led to where we are today. 

“As I look back to 2001, it was really NASCAR that kind of took the bull by the horns and really led that charge,” said Kevin Harvick, who replaced Earnhardt following the tragic death. “There was so much change during that typical time period. It was hard to keep up.”

With all of this safety now in mind, Earnhardt is the last death in NASCAR’s main three divisions. That’s 20 years ago this month. It’s a remarkable feat to show up for 19 straight years and not see any one get killed inside of a race car. 

“I’m a beneficiary of the safety era,” Kurt Busch said. “With the SAFER barriers. The Hans device. The seats. Everything we’ve added to these cars to make them safer. I’ve seen a lot happen over the couple of decades.”

We now return to Daytona this week to kick off the another Speedweeks. Safety is on our minds again not only because of this being the 20th anniversary of that fateful day, but also because of how far safety has come with Ryan Newman’s frightening crash in last year’s Daytona 500. 

If Newman’s crash occurred a couple of decades ago, there’s no reason to believe that he’d be with us today still. But, all these safety initiatives and constant updating that front, has allowed Newman to not only walk away from last year’s crash, but he’s back this year eyeing a chance to earn his second career win in the Great American Race. 

“As terrible as it was and we’ll never get over losing Dale Earnhardt, but there was a lot that came out of it for safety,” said Richard Childress. “There’s been some horrendous crashes. Austin Dillon’s, Ryan Newman’s, you go on down the list of crashes and these drivers have walked away because of the safety.”

This year’s race also reminds us a lot of 2001 anyways. That year was the start of a new era in NASCAR then. A new TV package would start. All the attention was huge. The vibe and buzz around the 2001 race was massive. 

Same for the 2021 edition. A new schedule is here. New teams have arrived with owners like Michael Jordan and Pitbull have joined. A new car is coming out in 2022. The Most Popular Driver, Chase Elliott, won last year’s championship. 

The buzz heading into this year’s Speedweeks is big again and feeling reminiscent of 2001. 

“With the TV package with FOX taking over, then NBC, there was this anticipation or aura about NASCAR and I’m feeling that same thing in 2021,” Busch continued. “With the Next Gen car on the horizon, a group of young drivers coming in and trying to take out the veterans. It’s that same feel. I’m really happy with how the sport has transitioned with the technology, the safety, the TV aspect of it. This is the first time I’ve seen this many changes since 2001. All in all, it’s a good refreshing time right now.”

A new era of NASCAR, just like it was in 2021 and a reminder of how good Dale Earnhardt led a safety charge for the sport moving forward. 

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