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Ten Years After: Ken Schrader Recalls a Moment He'll Never Forget

Feb 8, 2011 – 5:06 PM
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Holly Cain

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Ten years ago on Feb. 18, we lost Dale Earnhardt. NASCAR President Mike Helton used those very words that day – "we lost Dale Earnhardt" – in making the announcement that shocked and saddened people like no other death in American motorsports. It was a national tragedy – Earnhardt's photo appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek – and it reflected the fact that during his amazing career, the sport had grown from its regional roots into a major national sport, in good measure because of his exploits.

Starting today and continuing for eight days, FanHouse is proud to present a series entitled
Ten Years After – The Untold Stories. Most of these stories about that fateful day or about Earnhardt's career have either never been told or are recalled in greater detail than ever before. In this opening story, with the perspective of a decade gone by, FanHouse's Senior Motorsports Writer Holly Cain talks to Ken Schrader, who was the first person to Dale's car after the fatal accident.

After hitting the turn four wall and spinning down the high banks of Daytona International Speedway, Ken Schrader's car came to rest alongside Dale Earnhardt's famous black No. 3 in the infield grass as the rest of the field steamrolled by toward the checkered flag in the 2001 Daytona 500.

Frustrated that he was wrecked in the last corner of the last lap of the 500 and denied what looked like a sure top-five finish, Schrader unbuckled his safety harness, climbed out of his hobbled Pontiac and calmly made his way around the back of Earnhardt's car (above). He leaned into Earnhardt's window ready to commiserate with the seven-time champ on their misfortune but also to congratulate his good friend on Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s 1-2 finish in the Daytona 500.

Schrader took one look into the cockpit and instead immediately started motioning frantically for emergency workers to rush to Earnhardt's aid.

Schrader's reaction is an enduring moment.

His gestures and body language broke the news that stopped the hearts of NASCAR fans around the world.

"I'm like, that (crash) was a pretty big deal, I'll climb out and go talk to Dale -- we were the only two cars in the middle of the grass and no one was there yet, so I just checked on him,'' Schrader explained to FanHouse recently in a rare and candid interview about that fateful day.

"I never thought (he might be dead). There was no instinct or anything, no gut feeling.''

"It was just tough seeing what I saw because I walked up there and took the window net down and thought he'd be happy to see that Mikey (Waltrip) won the race, but pissed off because he wrecked.

"I got caught off-guard with what I saw.''

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Schrader has rarely spoken publicly about that day. Of all the many days he knew Earnhardt, that's not the one he chooses to conjure when he thinks of his good buddy.

The two veterans -- distinctly more vintage than new-age NASCAR -- had been friends since almost the day Schrader and his family arrived in North Carolina from his home state of Missouri. A Midwest racing icon who was prone to drive -- and win -- anything with wheels, Schrader had decided to see what this burgeoning sport of NASCAR was all about.

"I remember the first day we showed up in Charlotte, we had a mobile home and the electricity wasn't even turned on yet and Earnhardt came over and he said, 'What do you need? What can I get you?' Schrader recalled.
Dale Earnhardt "was a very sweet man, had a heart of gold and wanted to make damn sure people didn't know it. It would have screwed up his image."
-- Ken Schrader

"I remember my daughter, when she was about 8 years old, going on a trip with him and his family on his boat. I guess after a few days she started getting homesick and he told me how he would put her on his lap, make her laugh, even cuddle with her, just trying to make her feel more comfortable.

"I remember when she was even younger, the first time I took her over to Earnhardt's house and he had all his hunting things up on the walls. . . I introduced him by saying, 'Honey, this is Dale Earnhardt and he's the guy that killed Bambi.'

"That cost me a couple wrecks,'' Schrader said laughing.

Like so many, Schrader says the sport is suffering from an Earnhardt void. What separated him from the others was desire and an intangible combination of toughness, aggression and sensibility. Whether you loved to hate him or you loved to love him, he stirred a passion.
"He had a ton of ability to start with,'' Schrader said. "He had tremendous amount of desire. He wasn't going to take no for an answer ever. He wanted it worse than a lot of people. He sure wasn't afraid to wiggle someone if he had to.

"And you'd get so friggin' mad, but you didn't retaliate,'' Schrader explained, "No matter how mad you got at him, you just couldn't stay mad.

"It was kinda like he couldn't help himself,'' Scharder laughed.
"He was a very sweet man, had a heart of gold and wanted to make damn sure people didn't know it.
"It would have screwed up his image.''

And that's the indelible image Schrader holds onto. There will always be a connection between them.

"As far as laps and seasons and on track, it feels like years ago (since Dale raced),'' Schrader said, pausing and sighing.

"But as far as memories and missing someone, it feels like months ago.''

Schrader (right) knows that with the sport marking 10 years since Earnhardt's death this Speedweeks, the attention will be on the accident and will inevitably bring up memories. His resolve is to keep them more positive than tragic.

"I've been in that position before when I got to a car and it was bad,'' Schrader said, his voice growing quiet and trailing off.

"Remember I grew up in open-wheel cars and I think seven or eight times something bad happened like that. ... That part of racing you're kinda conditioned for.

"It just wasn't supposed to be our hero.

"Dale Earnhardt was our hero.''
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