DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (BP)–Chaplains Max Helton and Dale Beaver had just made their way to the winner’s circle Feb. 18 to congratulate Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip when they were asked to immediately go to the infield care center where Dale Earnhardt was in serious condition.
Unfortunately, it was already too late for Earnhardt, who died instantly of head injuries suffered in a crash during the last lap of the race.
Earnhardt, 49, considered the greatest stock car star of his era, was cut out of his car after slamming into the wall on the final turn of the race while trying to protect teammate Waltrip’s victory. In fourth position, he grazed Sterling Marlin’s car, crashed into the wall going 180 mph and then was hit by Ken Schrader. Earnhardt was pronounced dead after being taken to Halifax Medical Center.
“Right now the biggest impact is that it’s left everyone stunned and shocked,” said Billy Mauldin, chief operating officer of Motor Racing Outreach. “Everybody had a lot of respect for him as a racer. His appeal to the fans was as high as anyone.”
Helton and Beaver are members of Motor Racing Outreach, which ministers to fans and competitors within the NASCAR community. MRO sponsors concerts of various types of music, distributes Christian literature and videos and encourages competitors to share their testimonies.
Because of MRO’s constant presence at racing events over the years, some chaplains got to know Earnhardt outside the realm of competition.
“We saw him as a man of faith,” Mauldin said. “He was private about that part of his life. He was very involved in his church in Mooresville [N.C.]. He was a very giving person.” Earnhardt, who was loved and respected in his hometown, was a Lutheran.
“Dale was the Michael Jordan of our sport … to think he is not around anymore is incomprehensible,” H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, president of Lowe’s Motor Speedway, told ESPN. “This is a terrible, terrible loss and, for me, it ranks right up there with the death of JFK.”
Tom Elam, chairman of raceway ministries at Bristol Speedway in Bristol, Va., told Baptist Press he was shocked to hear the news of Earnhardt’s death.
“This is a tremendous loss to the racing community,” said Elam, who also serves as worship minister at First Baptist Church, Bluff City, Tenn. “He was a legend … a competitor far beyond most individuals. He had a love for the sport that probably superceded other racers who got behind the wheel of a car. He had a passion for racing.”
Earnhardt was a seven-time Winston Cup champion and the leader among active Winston Cup drivers with 76 victories. He had the most victories at Daytona International Speedway with 34.
“He was a premiere athlete in his sport,” Mauldin said.
Known for his aggressiveness on the track, Earnhardt’s crash marked his second major wreck in five years. His death now brings Winston Cup’s body count to three in the last nine months. Busch Series driver Adam Petty was killed in Loudon, N.H., last May. Two months later, Winston Cup driver Kenny Irwin was killed at New Hampshire International Speedway.
President Bush, who described Earnhardt as a friend, called to express his condolences to Earnhardt’s wife, Teresa. Bush spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Feb. 18 that the president’s “prayers are with the Earnhardt family and the NASCAR community.
In addition to his wife, Earnhardt is survived by four children, including son Dale Earnhardt Jr. who finished second in the Daytona 500 and another son who is a race car driver.
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