CABARRUS COUNTY, NC (WBTV) - Dale Earnhardt died 9 years ago today. In some ways, it seems ages ago, in others it's like yesterday.
Like most people in the Carolinas I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when it happened. I was watching the Daytona 500. It was coming down to what appeared to be an exciting finish, and when Earnhardt crashed into the wall, I didn't think that much about it.
The wreck seemed so routine. The black Chevy turned up into the wall, hit it pretty hard, then came back down the track. Within minutes we would know that one of the greatest drivers in the history of racing was dead.
I'll never forget the outpouring of grief. The lawn and fence at Dale Earnhardt, Incorporated were covered with flowers that reminded many of the same images that followed the death of Princess Diana.
But this was racing's royalty, and his fans were overcome with emotion. I remember the image of one fan, decked out in the best "GM Goodwrench" style, pounding his fist on the team's car hauler and crying uncontrollably.
I covered all the events for WBTV, starting just a few minutes after Earnhardt's death. I spent the day at Concord Regional Airport interviewing race teams as they came back from Daytona.
I remember Robert Yates insisting that he thought there had to be some mistake. He just could not accept that Dale Earnhardt was really gone.
The funeral was one of the biggest ever seen in Charlotte. Miles of cars drove in slow procession to the church. I remember seeing Richard Petty, Dale, Jr., and everyone who was anyone in the world of motor sports, along with political leaders, leaders in the business community, and the fans who lined the streets holding signs.
It was all 9 years ago.
What's happened since then? Clearly stock cars are safer than they have ever been. Earnhardt's death, and the deaths of Adam Petty, Neil Bonnet, and several other drivers led to a revolution in safety improvements. HANS devices, stronger cages and roll bars, safer barriers, and moving the driver's seat more to the middle of the car have all greatly improved driver safety.
For all he accomplished on the track, Earnhardt's greatest legacy may be the lives saved by these improvements.
Today fans will once again gather at Dale Earnhardt, Incorporated in Mooresville to light candles, sign guest books, and just quietly contemplate the life of the 7 time champion.
They'll remember the good times, the Daytona 500 win, the blue and yellow Wrangler car, the black Chevy, even the Sun Drop commercials and the "pass in the grass." There will be tears and laughter, and the wish that they could see him race just one more time.