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Days of thunder

Teresa Earnhardt speaks out for the first time about her marriage, the tragic crash that took her husband’s life and her battle to preserve Dale’s legacy.
/ Source: NBC News

NASCAR is now the nation’s top spectator sport, its drivers treated like rock stars. So millions will be watching this weekend for what’s been called the “Super Bowl” of stock car racing, the Daytona 500. It was at Daytona two years ago that NASCAR lost its favorite son, Dale Earnhardt, and a family lost a husband and father. In an exclusive interview with NBC’s Katie Couric, Dale’s widow speaks out for the first time about their marriage, the tragic crash that took her husband’s life and her battle to preserve his legacy.

Forty super-charged race cars, throttling up at nearly 200 miles per hour, just inches apart, jockey for position on the tri-oval stretch of blacktop called Daytona.

Two years ago, as the white flag signaled the great American race’s final lap, fans braced for a dramatic finish. The leader board showed three drivers, all teammates, running one, two and three.

Katie Couric: “Were you there?”

Earnhardt: “Uh-Hum!”

Couric: “And were you watching?”

Earnhardt: “Uh-huh. Yeah, that last lap was very exciting.”

Teresa Earnhardt had more than a vested interest in the outcome of this race. Not only was she the co-owner of the multi-million-dollar race team out in front, she was married to the man running third. And she had gotten used to seeing Dale’s No. 3 black Chevrolet running wide open in a frantic sprint for the checkered flag.

Earnhardt: “I knew Dale first-hand, and I knew how incredible he was. He was just bigger than life. I didn’t worry about his ability at all. I didn’t have to at the race track, because Dale could take care of himself.”

But as the cars careened around Daytona’s treacherous turn four, Dale Earnhardt lost control.

Couric: “You’d seen him crash before?”

Earnhardt: “Uh-huh.”

Couric: “How many times, Teresa?”

Earnhardt: “Not that much. He was very good.”

For Teresa Earnhardt, days like this were nothing new. She was used to seeing the men she loved perform their death-defying maneuvers at race tracks since she was a little girl, growing up in the circle track hotbed of Hickory, N.C. Both her father and her uncle were local racing heroes. Though it seemed her degree in interior design from Piedmont Community College in 1978 might have put her on a course of her own, her priorities shifted when she was introduced to a dirt poor sportsman circuit driver from nearby Kannapolis, named Dale Earnhardt.

Couric: “What was it about him that attracted you?”

Earnhardt: “Just he was always very energetic. And just seemed to not be timid about what the job was that needed to be done.”

A high-octane mixture of brash ego and fierce determination earned Dale a record-tying seven Winston Cup championships, millions of fans, and a nickname, “the intimidator.”

Said one NASCAR rep, “Most drivers will tell you they hated to see Earnhardt’s car in their review mirror.”

Couric: “Were you ever scared to death watching this?”

Earnhardt: “No. I grew up around it so, you know, it’s second nature to me. And it’s just like other sports. I mean, bull riding and motorcycle, you know, racing, boxing, I don’t understand why they do that either. But they know what they’re doing. So — and it’s a choice. Everybody chooses it. So, that’s America.”

So is capitalism. And together, Dale and Teresa Earnhardt formed one of the most lucrative tag-team partnerships in all of sports. With Dale handling the racing, and Teresa handling the sponsors, Dale Earnhardt Incorporated (DEI) became a motor sports empire, which Forbes recently valued at $80 million.

“Dad always said that before he met Teresa he owed the bank money,” says Dale Earnhardt, Jr. “And by the time they got married the bank owed him money.”

Couric: “Dale Earnhardt, Jr., seemed to say that you knew when to open and close the checkbook.”

Earnhardt: “I mean, you’ve got to know what you got and what you’re going do with it. So, I didn’t think that was anything extraordinary either.”

Dale’s take-no-prisoners approach more than made up for his wife’s aw-shucks humility. And for 20 years, it seemed as though Team Earnhardt was unstoppable. But on Feb. 18, 2001, the veneer of invincibility was shattered when Dale crashed into the wall at Daytona — at 158 miles per hour.

Couric: “When you saw him go into that wall did your heart stop? Did you think, ‘Oh?’”

Earnhardt: “No, because I know the cars are safe. And in racing, things happen so quick that there’s no time to like dwell on anything. So, it’s just—”

Couric: “When this happened did you think he’s okay?”

Earnhardt: “We just have to wait and see. You really just have to wait and see.”

Couric: “How did you find out what happened to him?”

Earnhardt: “We went onto the infield care center and onto the hospital.”

At 5:16 p.m. that Sunday afternoon, Dale Earnhardt was pronounced dead.

“NASCAR has lost its greatest driver ever,” said NASCAR president Mike Helton. “And I personally have lost a great friend.”

Grief-stricken fans mourned Dale’s passing by placing flowers at the gates of DEI headquarters in Mooresville, N.C. And even President Bush honored his friend by lowering the White House flag to half staff. But the one whose loss was most personal, Teresa, didn’t have time to grieve. Within days of Dale’s death, she found herself in a race against time — filing an injunction to keep her husband’s autopsy photos sealed from an inquiring media.

“Anyone looking at any of them is the most personal invasion of my privacy and my family’s privacy that I can imagine,” she said in court.

Couric: “Why was it so important for you, Teresa, to become personally involved in this?”

Earnhardt: “Well, I really didn’t have a choice. I just think it’s a privacy issue, and a dignity issue. And it should never have even been an issue. But it was.”

It was an issue because under a Florida state law, autopsy photos were public record. And the press, namely the Orlando Sentinel, wanted access to the photos. In fact, they had already been examining the safety of NASCAR (which insists to this day, it is passionately committed to the safety of its drivers.)

“We had no interest in publishing the photos,” says Orlando Sentinel vice president and editor Tim Franklin. “We expressed that to Mrs. Earnhardt from the beginning. We didn’t want to invade her privacy, we didn’t want to extend her grief. We simply wanted a medical opinion that would provide more knowledge about how drivers die.”

Teresa not only won the battle in court, she also won at the State Senate. In a unanimous vote, Florida enacted the Family Protection Act which prohibits public access to autopsy photos without a court order. And now, 18 other states have followed its lead. It’s a victory, she says, not only for her, but for their 14-year-old daughter, Taylor.

Earnhardt: “It just turned out that what I had to do to protect myself and my family was a major movement for everybody in Florida.”

Meanwhile NASCAR says it remains passionately committed to driver safety. And since Earnhardt’s death, it’s implemented a number of changes, including mandating the Hans device as well as data recorders in all cars, similar to those used in airplanes.

And now, two years later, Teresa remains at the helm of Dale Earnhardt incorporated, a diversified company which includes a Perdue chicken farm, a minor league baseball team — oh, and it’s three Winston Cup race teams, who will be racing these cars at Daytona this weekend.

Teresa’s also started the Dale Earnhardt Legacy Program, a foundation she hopes will celebrate the life, and further the memory of her late husband and the many causes close to his heart, including children’s education and wildlife preservation.

But whether it’s continuing on with the nine-to-five business of running DEI or the 24/7 job of being a single mom, Teresa Earnhardt is a lot like the man who drove the No. 3 car: tough, tenacious and almost always in control.

Couric: “When you and Taylor, your daughter, maybe have some private moments, do you ever just cry together, or do you cry by yourself, just from the shear sadness of having to live without the man you loved?”

Earnhardt: “I might do something like that for about 10 seconds. And I hate it. I hate it so bad, feeling bad, that I just turn it off. I mean, I miss him, and I always will. Just terribly. But I’m not going to feel bad about it. I’m going to feel glad about what I had.”

In June, there will be a concert at Daytona to benefit the foundation formed in Dale Earnhardt’s memory. Sheryl Crow, Alabama and Kenny Chesney will be among the performers.