Dale Earnhardt Sr: “I’m sorry, I saw two racetracks”
It happened back on August 31, 1997 at Darlington Raceway.
Dale Earnhardt Sr fell asleep on pit road, twice. The second one came right as drivers were being ordered to fire the engines and hit the track for pace laps.
It wasn’t an uncommon thing for The Intimidator to fall asleep in a parked race car. In fact, many die-hard racing drivers will tell you they can sleep better in their race car than they can in they’re own bed.
“It’s not unusual for Dale to doze off before a race or under red-flag conditions,” said Don Hawk back in 1997. Hawk was the president of Dale Earnhardt Inc. at that time.
But, it was concerning that it happened just moments before the cars were set to pull off the pit lane.
Earnhardt Sr fired it up. He then drove into turn 1 and hit the wall, the very first turn of the race. He followed that by doing it again in turn 2. Earnhardt dragged against the wall throughout the entirety of turn 2. He hit a notch in the wall off turn 2 which sent him in the direction of the infield.
Watch the video below.
This was the face of NASCAR, wrecking all by himself. This was the same man who was famous for cleaning the windshield of his race car, under the yellow flag. It a very concerning moment from any angle.
Car owner Richard Childress immediately hit the radio button for pit box to in-car chat. There was a delayed response from the driver of the #3 car.
Finally, Richard Childress had enough. He screamed at his driver, telling the 7-time NASCAR champion to park the car before the green flag ever dropped on the Southern 500.
“I’m sorry, I saw two racetracks,” Dale Earnhardt finally responded to the radio call from his team owner as he struggled to locate the pit lane entrance.
Dale Earnhardt Sr was scheduled to start 36th that day. Instead, he was pulled from his car and a replacement driver was put in the #3 car, who finished 30th. Meanwhile, Earnhardt spent 24 hours in the local hospital.
There were questions of whether or not Earnhardt would be at the next race. NASCAR forced tests for clearance.
“It’s beyond Dale Earnhardt or whether he can race,” Kevin Triplett told the Los Angeles Times back in 1997. Triplett was a spokesman for NASCAR in those days. He continued, “We just want to make sure that he’s OK.”
Dale Earnhardt Sr was forced to run the hospital tests all of which came back negative, for anything.
“I’ve been concerned about my health and what I may or may not be able to do from here on. But, it came up all negative and they’ve released me to race,” Dale Earnhardt Sr later stated in a press conference. “I’m pretty confident in myself that it’s not going to happen again.”
“They did everything they could do. Well, they didn’t check to see it I was pregnant. But, everything else they did,” Dale Earnhardt Sr talked about his hospital trip leading in Richmond.
He returned the next week at Richmond International Raceway, he finished 15th.
So what happened?
This morning the incident was remembered by his son Dale Earnhardt Jr. To this day, it’s still a mystery…
“That was a frightening ordeal,” Dale Earnhardt Jr recalled the memory via twitter.
“On the pace laps he said he was ‘lost’ and he was rubbing the wall. Some odd reaction had him completely disoriented. They took him to the hospital and still to this day don’t know what happened.”
1997 was the only year that Dale Earnhardt Sr didn’t win a NASCAR Winston Cup Series race after running a full season. He rebounded in 1998, winning his first ever Daytona 500.