History The Earnhardt Connection

1997 Mountain Dew Southern 500
Darlington, South Carolina
August 31, 1997

car1.jpg (16081 bytes)Seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt ran one of the worst laps of his life in Busch Pole Qualifying for the Mountain Dew Southern 500.

But just when Earnhardt thought he could go no lower, he found dynamite. It came Sunday just a few moments after the waving of the green flag.

Earnhardt failed to complete a single lap at Darlington Raceway without incident after smacking the Turn 1 wall, then repeating the process -- with greater impact -- in Turn 2.

It took him two laps to get the GM Goodwrench Service Chevrolet back to the pits, where he was carried from the car and immediately brought to the trackside medical center.

Following a preliminary examination, Earnhardt was transferred to McLeod Regional Medical Center in nearby Florence, where he received a battery of tests, including a CAT scan on his chest, head and abdomen, as well as an EKG, and a check for carbon monoxide poisoning.

Despite all tests coming back negative, Earnhardt was scheduled to stay overnight in the hospital.

"Dale doesn't remember anything," said team owner Richard Childress, minutes after Earnhardt's shocking crash. "He doesn't even remember starting the race. It just happened all at once."

After the race, Dale Earnhardt Inc. president Don Hawk agreed with Childress that something was amiss early, but that those closest to the Kannapolis, N.C. native failed to fully realize it.

"About two minutes before the race started, a couple of us commented that he didn't look the same," Hawk said. "He's usually a little bit on the bit -- he's like a racehorse. ... Obviously, when he hit the wall, he wasn't himself. That's just not Dale Earnhardt."

The race very nearly ended Earnhardt's streak of running at the end in the past 36 races. It is a mark he managed to extend despite his harrowing upside-down trip down the backstretch at Daytona International Speedway in February.

car2.jpg (19060 bytes)That time he chased a wrecker out of the driver's seat, forced the tow-truck driver to unhook his black Chevrolet, then completed the race's final laps.

This time he had to rely on NASCAR Busch Series Grand National driver Mike Dillon to extend his run. Dillon, who finished 39th in Saturday's Dura-Lube 200 presented by Trak Auto, is Childress' son-in-law. He entered the race on lap 80, and stayed out of trouble the rest of the afternoon, with an unofficial finish of 30th, an improvement of six places from Earnhardt's original spot on the grid.

Dillon, who has 50 NASCAR Busch Series starts to his credit, sits in 16th in the unofficial series standings. His best finish of the year was a sixth at Myrtle Beach. But Sunday, running up front was hardly a priority. Staying out of trouble, something the car's regular occupant failed to do, was his only goal.

"Dale Earnhardt is my hero, and I wish the best for him," Dillon said. "It was fun out there today. To just get out there in that car was great. ... Hopefully we helped them get some points. The main thing is that Dale is all right."

Dillon did his job. He stayed out of the way of the leaders as the pack bore down on him late in the race. He kept the Childress-owned machine off the wall -- and that was something team member Mike Skinner couldn't do.

Later, the mystery of what happened in those opening laps was explained.

"This is fairly common," said Dr. Branch of the Department of Neurosurgery at Bowman-Gray Baptist Hospital in a Friday morning press conference at Richmond International Raceway. "We believe that this was a temporary dysfunction of the brain that we believe was either a migraine-like episode where a blood vessel feeding the base of the brain temporarily went into spasm and restricted some of the blood flow to the brain stem and creating this temporary dysfunction."

According to Dr. Branch the condition is not something that can be treated or even identified once it has gone away. He likened it to an arm or leg going numb during normal daily activities, something that happens regularly, often going untreated and rarely occurring again.

Earnhardt said that a lot of thoughts crossed his mind that week, including wondering if this incident could end his career.

Fortunately, Earnhardt was able to continue his career, competing the very next week at Richmond International Raceway.


1998, 1999 TEC