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Schrader recalls a friend and the frantic moments after the crash

February 18, 2011, Dave Rodman,

Schrader recalls a friend and the frantic moments after the crash

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Ken Schrader was the epitome of the racer's racer long before he first tried NASCAR, seemingly in another lifetime, back in 1984.

Schrader remains fixed in the same image in 2011, accounting, of course, for the positive development that time would bring.

"Here's the deal. When I went up to the car ... I knew. I knew he was dead. I didn't want to be the one who said, 'Dale is dead.'"


He's a committed family man. He owns his own racing operation, which suits his own passion as well as cultivating young talent. As an offshoot of that driving passion, he's involved in race track ownership. And in his "spare time" he even throws in some TV work.

And so it is that all these years later -- even if you'd argue "it's only 10 years," in Schrader's world that's a heckuva lotta laps -- the images from that Feb. 18 Daytona 500 10 years ago seem somewhat mixed for Schrader.

Dealing with the death of Dale Earnhardt on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 is something millions have had to deal with. Some were closer to it than others. Schrader and Earnhardt's newest driver at the time, Michael Waltrip, were much closer than they wanted to be.

Each has dealt with it in their own ways. It took Waltrip 10 years of painful introspection, but he finally wrote his story -- including that most painful chapter -- in his eloquent In the Blink of an Eye, which last week made the New York Times best-seller list.

Schrader's path was much different, as much as it was on that fateful day. While Waltrip led the field to the checkers, Schrader was in the midst of the snarling wad that beat and bumped its way through Turn 4 for the final time.

Schrader's car made contact with Earnhardt's in its final sequence, and their cars came to rest, together, in the infield. Schrader's seemingly frantic reaction after he went to the seven-time champion -- his friend's -- car is burned into many peoples' memories.

But again, Schrader's path to that point -- including the day's 199 previous laps -- is a fascinating collage of images.

"The last [Cup] race I run was Martinsville, and I couldn't tell you much about it because when it was over, I didn't figure there was much about it that I needed to remember," Schrader said of Oct. 24, 2010. "It [2001 Daytona 500] was just a friggin' race, the way I remember [the first 199 laps].

"I've heard and read how [Earnhardt] was an altogether different person that day, and this and that. But his company had [three] of the cars that he owned in the Daytona 500; if I'm correct, that would've been the first year [Dale Earnhardt Inc. had three Cup entries].

"It was the first race Michael [Waltrip] run for him, and there was no [No. 15 DEI] car before Michael. So it was the first time he'd had [three cars] as a seven-time champion, so I'm sure that'd make you walk a little bit different."

Some things definitely haven't changed in the decade since. Schrader took a couple breaks before some dirt racing at Golden Isles Speedway outside Brunswick, Ga., to do a few more interviews -- "Man, I've done a [crap-load] of these things, these last two weeks," Schrader says -- focusing on Speedweeks 2011 versus the memory of Speedweeks 2001.

Schrader, as anyone who's watched his various TV clips knows, has a shrewd insight into the sport, but also a sly sense of humor. You say "Earnhardt" and Schrader's in full bloom, when asked on the phone about Earnhardt the man versus Earnhardt the competitor -- the persona that most people observing the sport thought they had knocked. And then he spoke slowly.

"When anybody asks me about what he meant to my career, I just say, 'about six extra DNFs, that were pretty much uncalled-for, you know?" Schrader said, projecting that deadpan smile right through the airwaves as he audibly chuckled. "That's what he really means to my career.

"As far as [what he meant] to your life, and losing a friend -- well, yeah, that's different. But for what he meant to my career it's about six DNFs. One of 'em was lap four at Pocono, another one was at Phoenix -- but I couldn't tell you where they all were ... And maybe it wasn't six -- maybe it was four. But it was a bunch."

Spoken like a true cost-conscious racer -- which Earnhardt certainly was, himself.

"One time, must've been Phoenix because he was running for a championship, and [Andy] Petree was his crew chief," Schrader said. "And when I got to the races the next week, Petree was instantly there, saying 'I know you wanna wreck him, I know you should wreck him, you deserve to wreck him -- I would wanna wreck him, too. But don't wreck him this weekend -- wreck him when we get to Daytona [laughing]. Don't wreck him, now.'

"And I just said, 'I ain't gonna wreck him. Don't worry about that.'

"And then he wrecked me at another place, I guess it was Pocono; and Dale was in the truck when I got to Sonoma. He said 'I was in there. Your spotter didn't tell ya.' Now, Dale came and was waiting for me in the truck. Does that say 'guilty?' I mean, he wouldn't 'fess up, but he came to tell me how it was my fault -- so I figured that was as close as I was gonna get, from him -- so I took it as a 'fess up."

The media learned, if they were smart, to bring their A-game when dealing with Earnhardt, because the man didn't kindly suffer fools. And, Schrader said, that same multidimensional side played with his competitors, and Schrader saw plenty of it.

"If you went to him with something that was really [messed] up, and he thought it was really [messed] up, but he thought you were OK; then he'd just give you a bunch of [crap], tell you how [messed] up you were -- and then straighten you out," Schrader said. "But if you went to him all [messed] up, and he thought you were [messed] up -- then he'd just let you stay [messed] up, you know?

"I'm sure that's the same thing a lot of [the media] went through, especially the younger ones. He'd be 'That's [freakin'] stupid but this kid wants it, so we'll help them through it.' It's the same thing [the media] might see with Tony Stewart."

Schrader got his start racing in the Midwest, where he was USAC Stock Car Rookie of the Year, USAC Silver Crown and USAC Sprint Car champion in the early 1980s. He decided to get a taste of NASCAR in 1984, and was the 1985 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year.

Schrader said he knew the name "Earnhardt" from the first time he looked at NASCAR as a career option, but Earnhardt "the man" quickly took the relationship much deeper, to Schrader's delight, as Schrader was blessed to share a side of the seven-time champion seen by a select few.

"What he meant to my life, was big, because he had become a very good friend," Schrader said. And clarification is needed, here. When Ken Schrader says "big," he means "BIG."

"I don't know if he put as much of an impact on my career as he did just being a friend when we moved down [to North Carolina]," Schrader said. "We commuted back and forth from St. Louis all of '85 and the first part of '86 and then we decided it looked like things were going to work out and we needed to go ahead and relocate to North Carolina. And when we did, we had to find a place to live.

"Chuck Rider, who owned that Pennzoil car that Mikey [Waltrip] drove forever, let Ann and I stay in his condo at the [Charlotte] speedway for four nights between two southern races, in the spring -- because she always went home in between races to go to work.

"So we stayed at his condo and all we did was ride around, looking at property. Now, we didn't know [anything], so looking at property was anywhere from south of Charlotte on [Interstate] 85 to Statesville [N.C.] -- we didn't have a clue. We didn't know where nothing was -- we knew where the speedway was.

"And then, we had this other problem. We couldn't afford to buy nothing, anyway. But I was telling Dale a little bit about it and he said 'uh, give me a holler and I'll help you find a place, what are you looking for and [stuff].

"So I just bummed around with him, some, and found a place to buy. And then, later after we bought it, we moved down in August. Now, I was driving for Mr. [Junie] Donlavey, the rest of that year and all the following year, and the team was in Richmond [Va.].

"Well, if you're a Cup driver and your Cup team is not in town, and you don't have a garage or a short-track car down there to play with -- and you don't have a sponsor that's using you for a lot of [stuff] -- you've got a lot of spare time.

"And that's when Dale had just bought the farm [in Mooresville, N.C.]. Well, I'd just get up and go over to the farm every day ... Well, not every day -- but I spent a lot of time at the farm. Did I mess around on his heavy equipment? Then, he had some stuff and a whole lot of borrowed stuff. But yeah, hell, we went and knocked down trees and pushed over [stuff] with the bulldozer.

"Yeah, I got to play. It was not like I was running one piece and he was running the other piece, most of the time. I was either directing, and he was running it, or I was riding with him; but I got to play on a lot of the equipment, yes sir."

It helped create a more complete picture of Earnhardt for Schrader, which helped him understand what he meant to the sport, later.

"There ain't no telling what the sport would be like if Dale was still here," Schrader said. "I'm black and white. I can't say Dale Earnhardt did this, and Dale Earnhardt did this and he did this; because there's a whole lot of people that did a whole lot of things.

"Dale had an impact. He's a seven-time champion. It's not like he stands up and says something and everyone goes home and changes everything. But after he says it two or three times, you know, you get to thinking about stuff and realize, 'Maybe this does make sense.'

"It's not just him. It's Richard Petty, it's Cale [Yarborough] or David Pearson, a whole bunch of people before him. It was Darrell, all them guys that were up there. That's the way I take it, at least."

Schrader, who took a break from dirt UMP Modified racing to be at Daytona to watch his ARCA Racing Series car compete, waved off any notion that he's followed Earnhardt's lead as a guy who has a racing program and whose habit is giving breaks to up-and-coming talent.

"We got Tom Hessert [Jr.] driving our ARCA car this year, but he finished third in [ARCA] points last year, led the most laps and completed the most laps," Schrader said. "How big a risk is that, taking him? He knows what the [heck] he's doing, to a certain extent. He went into the last race of [2010] with a shot at winning the championship, and that's pretty big."

But "pretty big" is a massive understatement when it comes to understanding the ultimate, staggering impact -- when a gang of racers, racing for the ultimate prize, came together in a tangle of speed and tearing metal and screeching rubber in Turn 4 at Daytona on Feb. 18, 2001.

"What happened was, they were about to pay a whole lot of money and every car you were ahead of, you got more [money]," Schrader said. "That's all that happened. So everybody went down in there and everybody was pushing that extra little bit, you know? It was just a fluke deal."

But it was nothing compared to what Schrader witnessed when he went to his friend in need.

"Here's the deal," Schrader said. "When I went up to the car ... I knew. I knew he was dead, yeah."

It took Schrader 10 years to say the words, and his rationale was as brutally simple as slinging a car on the edge of control through a speedway's corners.

Dale Earnhardt - 3 - A Look Back

"I didn't want to be the one who said 'Dale is dead,'" Schrader said.

And as it always does, it left a massive, gaping void that was evident in the moments after the crash -- evidenced in the face of inevitability by Schrader's frantic motions to safety workers that are being widely revisited this week.

But the inexorable vacuum started working in a most abject way in the immediate aftermath, when Schrader went to the speedway's infield care center. In very short order, Earnhardt's friend and car owner, Richard Childress, arrived at the facility.

"The hardest thing I ever had to do was face Richard, in the infield care center after the crash," Schrader said. "He pulled the curtain back and asked what was going on. I told him it was bad.

"He wanted to know if Dale was going to be out for a while and I looked at him and said, 'No Richard, it's really bad.' I didn't want to say it."

Schrader went from the care center to Victory Lane, where the team Earnhardt and his wife had built from scratch, was attempting to celebrate its biggest victory. Schrader's impact there has been recorded.

And in the end, the reason for the void is simple, at least in Schrader's seemingly complex, but in fact, very simple world. It finally came out, as Schrader gave his old friend, Earnhardt, his due as an owner, a friend and a man.

"He definitely give [guys like Kenny Wallace, Steve Park and in 2001, Michael Waltrip] a shot, because he saw talent," Schrader said. "I'd like to think I can see a little bit of talent, but there's got to be new people coming in.

"But let's forget about that. Let's think about what [Earnhardt] did with D.W. [Darrell Waltrip, in 1998], when he needed someone to drive that 1 car [for 13 races replacing Park, who'd been injured in a crash at Atlanta]. There were other people out there to put in that car, but he knew, under the right circumstances, D.W. could still get the job done, good enough.

"And that made D.W. feel like King Kong on his way out, instead of feeling like he'd been beat to [crap].

"It's the same thing. I tell people that Dale had a huge heart -- it just didn't beat when he went on the race track. And he didn't want anybody to know [that he had one]."

Even though it's 10 years later, a lot more people have continued to find that out.