One of the Strangest Dale Earnhardt Stories: The Mystery of the 1997 NASCAR Southern 500

Copyright: Craig Jones - Getty Images
The start of the 1997 Southern 500 led to one of the most bizarre moments of Dale Earnhardt's long and illustrious career.
On the first lap of the green flag race, Earnhardt's familiar black Chevrolet crashed into the outside wall at Turn 1 and this was not due to contact with another car.
“He was dazed before the race started,” said Earnhardt team owner Richard Childress. "We couldn't communicate over the radio."
It was a Southern 500 that no one in Dale Earnhardt's inner circle in particular - and in his vast network of fans in general - is likely to forget.
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31st August 1997. Darlington Raceway.
The start of the race 25 years ago led to one of the most bizarre moments of Earnhardt's long and illustrious career.
The problems started in the minutes leading up to the race when the typical pre-race radio call between driver and pit crew – “Any problems? "Ready to go?" "Good luck out there" - spawned the first mystery of the day.
“He was dazed before the race started,” said Earnhardt team owner Richard Childress. "We couldn't communicate over the radio."
Copyright: Craig Jones - Getty Images
Realizing that Earnhardt might be in trouble, Childress tried to urge him to pit lane during the parade laps, but Earnhardt did not respond.
On the first lap of the green flag race, Earnhardt's familiar black Chevrolet slammed into the outside wall at Turn 1. The thought that he might just have made a mistake or blown a tire faded when virtually the same thing happened at Turn 2. Clearly something was wrong with the car or with Earnhardt.
Over the radio, the No. 3 crew attempted to direct Earnhardt to the pit lane.
Veteran race photographer Phil Cavali was standing in a team's pit car along the pit lane when Earnhardt's car pulled up at Turn 2.
"Security went over and lowered the window screen and next thing they pull him out of the car," Cavali said. “They carried him across the track and across the pit lane. They put him under the box where I was standing. They had an oxygen mask on him and his uniform was open. Looked like his eyes were closed - like he was upset or a little dazed."
Indeed, it was a shocking image for those on the ground. One of the toughest racers of his generation, Earnhardt lay sprawled, seemingly unconscious or very close as one of the biggest races of the season came to life without him.
In the busy panorama that is the start of a NASCAR race at the sport's oldest major track, there was more than a little excitement surrounding one of the sport's kingpins.
Confusion reigned in the Earnhardt pit. Although Earnhardt was a little calmer than usual before the race, there was nothing to worry about. The veteran was sometimes so calm and relaxed before training sessions or races that he fell asleep in the car.
Copyright: George Tiedemann - Getty Images
“We were busy getting the car ready and I hadn't seen Dale that morning,” said Danny “Chocolate” Myers, longtime Richard Childress Racing crew member. “Sometimes he was around; sometimes not. But everything seemed as normal as it could be. Then we suddenly hear the bang against the wall.”
When Earnhardt failed to make it to the pit lane, it became clear that something was wrong in the car. Now there were two big concerns in the RCR box: what was wrong with Earnhardt? And if he couldn't keep up the competition, who would drive his car?
The story goes on

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