Fan remembers a legend
TRIBUTE Doug Thompson, a long-time Dale Earnhardt fan, was at the Daytona 500 Sunday when Earnhardt was killed. He is pictured in the room at his house where he keeps his racing memorabilia. Photo by Steve Swogetinsky/The Meridian Star.
Doug Thompson of Meridian attended last Sunday's Daytona 500 in which seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt was killed. Thompson is a
long-time driver, car owner and promoter on the local dirt track circuit. He also loves NASCAR and has been a Dale Earnhardt fan since the late 1970s.
Thompson listened to Earnhardt's radio communications throughout the day and saw the wreck that took Earnhardt's life. Here are the events of the day in his own words.
By Doug Thompson/Special to The Star
Feb. 22, 2001
The phone rang 21/2 weeks ago.
It was a good friend of mine from Memphis, Tenn. I had not spoken to him in three or four months, We talked about general things for a while, then he asked the big question. "Do you want to go to Speedweek (at Daytona)?"
Knowing how much I love racing, he knew it was not a hard question to answer. Yes!
This would turn out to be no ordinary trip. We had first-class accommodations. We had priority parking passes, right behind the grandstands. And if you have never gone to Daytona, parking passes are priceless.
We were able to eat dinner with Stacey Compton, and met Robert Yates and Ernie Elliott. This trip was all I had dreamed about. I have attended other races, Talladega, Atlanta and I still go to Bristol in August every year. But this was special. The Daytona 500!
We attended all of the races from Thursday's Bud Shootout to the big one on Sunday. I was so excited.
Once we got to the grandstands, they started driver introductions and I waited for my man to come out. The announcement went something like this: "And starting in the No. 7 position, seven-time Winston Cup champion, Dale Earnhardt." The crowd went crazy.
I start to prepare for the race as if I was running it: scanner, headsets, spare batteries. I am ready.
The race was living up to its billing. A lot of side-by-side racing, three wide at times for several laps. NASCAR rule changes had made this a race again.
As I listened to the No. 3 car on the scanner, it was your normal information. Spotters were leading him through every turn, down the back stretch through the short chute into the tri-oval. This was great.
Then came lap 173, the big one on the back straight-away.
As the cars that made it through the wreck came around, NASCAR red-flagged the race (stopped it while the wrecked cars were cleared away). At the time, Michael Waltrip, Dale (Earnhardt) Junior and Earnhardt stopped in front of our towers.
Dale Sr. comes on the radio and said:
(Car owner) Richard Childress: "Dale, we don't need to come in for tires. We only have seven or eight laps on them."
Dale Sr. "There is a lot of debris on the track. We have to. I will tell Dale Jr. and Michael to come in."
(Earnhardt owned the cars that were being driven by his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip. His car is owned by Richard Childress. During the wait, Dale checked the tires of all three cars and decided they were good to go.)
Two or three minutes go by with silence as the cars sit on the track, waiting to go back to racing. Then Dale Sr. comes on the radio.
Dale Sr.: "Hey, you got a copy Andy?"
Andy: "Yeah, I got you big boy."
Dale Sr. "Let me ask you something. How would you approach these final laps?"
Andy: "We big guy. I don't think I can tell you anything that you don't already know. Just run fast and hard."
Dale Sr. "OK, are you enjoying yourself?"
Andy: "This is really great. You guys know how to race. This is so great."
Dale Sr. "OK then. I hope you have enjoyed yourself. I will see you at the truck."
Andy: "OK big guy. Give it your all."
Andy was Andy Pilgrim who was the third driver with Dale Sr. and Dale Jr. in the 24 hours of Daytona Race that was held two weeks earlier. The first for the Earnhardts. Dale Sr. was making sure that his new friend was having a good time, even though he was about to go racing in a 20-lap shootout. Good stuff.
The race restarted. As the lap meter got closer to the end, it appeared that Dale Sr. was getting in the defensive mode instead of his usual attack mode.
With eight laps to go and running third, he came on the radio:
Dale Sr: "Tell Michael to stay low."
As Michael and Dale Jr. entered the turn, they both went high.
Dale Sr: "Tell Michael to stay low!"
As they came back around, the same thing. Both went high in the turn.
Dale Sr.: "Get his spotter over there to tell Michael to stay low!"
The next lap, all three were running low.
With three laps remaining, Dale Sr. came on the radio.
Dale Sr.: "Stay low Michael, stay low. Stay low Michael, stay low."
It was as if he were talking directly to Michael Waltrip while, at the same time, fighting off Sterling Marlin (who was trying to move up and challenge for the lead.)
As I watched the final lap, I found myself pulling for Michael Waltrip because my man was pulling for him. This was something special. Michael Waltrip leading, about to win his first race in 463 tries. Dale Jr. was running second, and the old man was holding the rest of the field off.
And then I saw Dale Sr. get loose and I said, "Oh, no!" Then I knew he was not going to contend for the win so I started saying, "Go Michael," as if he could have heard me.
After the checkered flag dropped, Dale Sr.'s spotter, Danny, came on the radio.
Danny: "Dale, you OK?"
Danny: "Dale, let me know if you are OK."
Danny: "Richard, are you still on the radio?"
Richard: "Dale, talk to me."
Richard: "Dale, let me know something."
A minute or so goes by with no talking. Then Dale Jr. comes on.
Dale Jr. "Richard, they won't let me go down to the car."
Richard: "Meet me back at the transporter."
About 30 seconds passes, and then next voice goes like this.
Tressa (Earnhardt, Dale Sr.'s wife): "Dale, this is Tressa. Talk to me."