The crash that took Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s life happened in the closing laps of the Daytona 500 in 2001. I saw it happen, and from the angles the cameras caught it really didn't look like a big deal. Network coverage ended without any news. We saw the ambulance leaving the speedway, and that was it.
About two hours later, at a press conference, NASCAR President Mike Helton announced, "This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements I've ever personally had to make. But after the accident in Turn 4 at the end of the Daytona 500, we've lost Dale Earnhardt. link
NASCAR's premier driver was dead. Love or hate him, he was a polarizing figure whose popularity brought NASCAR into the "modern era" separate from drivers like Richard Petty or old moonshiners such as Junior Johnson. He was an "everyman," escaping a life of mill work and tedium for racing.
I, of course, was a fan. Heck yeah, I knew he used the "chrome horn," but if one returned the favor to him, he had no complaints. Live by the sword.....
At any rate, there has been no one to replace Dale in the hearts of fans everywhere. There is no spokesman for the sport that even comes close to his influence. His son, the current most popular driver for nine years in a row, is a lightning rod for many, being called overrated mostly, because he's never won like his father. He is not his father and never will be. What he is - a good NASCAR race driver with a proven record.
After Sr.'s death, NASCAR went on a major overhaul of the cars and the tracks to improve safety. "Safer barriers" on the walls of speedways now help absorb and slow down impacts. The cars are completely redesigned, with larger greenhouses for larger crush zones. Drivers are surviving crashes that would have killed them fifteen years ago.
I have changed my status as a fan - still gotta watch, and I do root for Junior, but mostly I want an entertaining race where no one gets hurt. Death is now and always has been part of racing, but that does not mean I want to watch a blood sport. So, I enjoy the show, and cringe when someone takes a header into a wall, or tumbles down a straight at 180+ mph. I've seen enough death in the sport.