DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. — Dale Earnhardt, perhaps the greatest stock-car driver NASCAR has ever seen, was killed yesterday when his car slammed head-first into the outside wall in Daytona International Speedway's third turn just one mile from the finish line in the season-opening Daytona 500.
Dr. Steve Bohannon, the head of emergency medical operations at Daytona International Speedway, said that Earnhardt was probably killed instantly and that the cause of death was probably a basal skull fracture, the same type of injury that killed two other NASCAR drivers last year, Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin.
"We all did everything we could for him. But he had what I feel were life-ending type injuries at the time of impact and really nothing could be done for him, " Bohannon said.
"He was unconscious and unresponsive from the time of the first paramedic's arrival, not breathing, and had no palpable pulse from the time of the first paramedic's arrival at the scene. And he remained that way throughout.
"He arrived at the hospital at 16:54 (4:54 p.m.). A full trauma resuscitation was attempted for a little over 20 minutes, at which time he was then placed on a ventilator, with multiple IV lines, fluids and chest tubes and various diagnostic tests. He never showed any signs of life, and was subsequently pronounced dead by all the physicians in attendance at 17:16 (5:16 p.m.) His wife was there at the bedside."
Just before 7 p.m., NASCAR's Mike Helton walked into the infield media center to give the official word, in a breaking voice: "This is one of the toughest announcements I've ever had to make. But we've lost Dale Earnhardt.
"We're here to tell you what we know. We don't know a lot. We don't know enough to answer all your questions. Our prayers and wishes and efforts are with Teresa (Earnhardt's wife) and the Earnhardt family, Richard Childress and his family, and Dale Earnhardt Inc.
"This is a very difficult time. Bill France's quote sums it up for the moment. There will be other press conferences and other opportunities to answer questions as we get more answers.
"His quote is 'NASCAR has lost its greatest driver ever, and I personally have lost a great friend.' That pretty well sums it up for the NASCAR community right now."
Earnhardt's death is NASCAR's fourth driver death in less than a year going back to Petty's death at Loudon, N.H., last May. Irwin was killed at Loudon in July, and Tony Roper was killed in a Truck Series race at Texas in late summer.
So, instead of fireworks and celebration for Michael Waltrip's first tour victory, NASCAR's season-opening spectacle ended with the howl of ambulances and with faces streaked with tears as Earnhardt was whisked to Halifax Hospital.
After a 19-car melee had eliminated much of the competition, the Daytona 500 was shaping up as an all-Earnhardt finish, with Earnhardt, in Richard Childress' legendary black Chevrolet, battling two of his own teammates including his son, second-year tour driver Dale Jr. The three were at the head of an eight-car draft, and Waltrip was blocking hard to keep the two Earnhardts behind him, while Sterling Marlin, Kenny Schrader, Ricky Rudd, Bobby Hamilton, Rusty Wallace and Mike Wallace scrambled in their wake.
"With five to go I was thinking I could beat them, " Waltrip said. "I could turn left and block them off, and I could go high and block them off. I did a good job protecting the lead.
"But I'm also fortunate the guy right behind me was my teammate and the guy behind him was his dad. I think we were all just trying to get to the end and then figure out who would win.
"I didn't have any choice but to stay where I was and make the most of it. And I made some good blocks, one that had Dale Jr. hitting me so hard it knocked my rear wheels off the ground.
"It was crazy, and I couldn't believe it was playing out for me."
Then, heading into the third turn on the last lap, Earnhardt was in a three-wide battle for third, just ahead of but side by side with Schrader on the outside and Marlin on the inside. Rusty Wallace dived into the gap just behind Earnhardt in the middle of the corner. Earnhardt's car wiggled and turned right into the wall and Schrader. Both hit the wall hard.
Schrader wasn't seriously injured, and Wallace held on for third.
"I don't know for sure what happened, " Schrader said. "We all spread out going down the backstretch, and I knew that was going to happen. I guess someone got into Dale because Dale got into me and then we went up. We hit pretty hard, and Dale hit harder. I don't know what happened. All of a sudden we were just crashing."
Marlin said that Earnhardt hit him in the corner. Marlin, who dominated the race in his new Dodge, had barely managed to get back into contention, needing the caution for that 19-car accident to make up ground lost because of his cut tire on the restart on lap 162 of the 200-lapper. But in the final miles it was Earnhardt's three Chevrolets against Marlin's lone Dodge.
"Everybody is for himself on the last lap, and I guess Dale thought he had me cleared and he didn't, and on the last lap you don't lift, even if you only bring back the steering wheel, " Marlin said. "We had the position and he cut down on us"
Bohannon, an emergency physician at Halifax Hospital since 1986, was one of the first men to Earnhardt's car: "I was about the third or fourth ambulance in. When I arrived there were a number of paramedics already attending to him. There was a paramedic in through the passenger window applying oxygen by a mask. Dr. Tim Allison, who is a trauma surgeon from Flagler County, was in through the driver's window and was delivering CPR. And there was another paramedic in the window with him, helping maintain the C-spine and holding the head.
"There were a number of firefighters on top of the car attempting to remove the roof, which took about five or 10 minutes, during which time we did CPR. When the roof came off, Dr. Allison and I both identified this was a very bad situation, a 'load-and-go' situation. We immediately removed him and transported him to the area Level Two Trauma Center, Halifax Hospital.
"There was a full trauma team to meet him. A trauma neurosurgeon, a trauma surgeon, and several emergency room doctors there as well. Additionally there was an anesthesiologist who helped us maintain the airway.
"That's about all I know at this time. He has been turned over to the medical examiner's office, and I expect an autopsy will be done, probably (today), for the exact cause of death. My speculation as an emergency physician would be head injuries, particularly to the base of the skull, that ended his life. He had blood in his airway and blood in his ears, which we see with basal skull fractures. But no other evidence of trauma."
It was not clear if Waltrip knew of his boss' death in Victory Lane after the race, but it had been clear that Earnhardt was seriously hurt.
"I would rather be anywhere but here, " Waltrip said after a surreal Victory Lane celebration.