Not All Soldiers Come Home

If you are trying to put Dale Earnhardt’s death in perspective, you are not alone.

After watching the 19-car wreck at Daytona on Lap 174, which resulted in minor injuries, and then seeing the accident on the last lap that claimed Earnhardt’s life, even the most seasoned observers scratch their heads and wonder why?

Fans question how Dale Earnhardt, of all drivers, could die in a racing accident?

The answer is brutally simple. Racing is and will always be a dangerous sport, even if you are Dale Earnhardt or Formula One World champions like Ayrton Senna and Jimmy Clark.

Advances in safety technology have meant that more drivers have been living to retirement age than ever before. Fans of all motor sports, except for open-wheel racing, have come to expect some gray hair on competitors.

They have overlooked the risks that a driver takes every time they buckle up to go racing. That leads to a complacency, which is shaken, in this case, by Earnhardt’s fatal accident.

Looking for some answers, I called Dan Gurney, a man who raced and won in almost every kind of vehicle in the deadly period from the mid-1950s to the very early 1970s.

His credentials are impeccable with wins in Can-Am, Formula One, Indy cars, sports cars and Winston Cup. He was the first driver I saw wearing a full-face helmet.

I started to ask him if some people have forgotten that racing is a dangerous sport, adding that if masters of the open-wheel series like Clark and Senna could die in an accident, anybody could.

Gurney, president of All American Racers, rebuked me with the tone of his voice interrupting and repeating "some people," meaning you have to drive to understand.

Then he explained that fans are lulled into a false sense of security.

"That’s a chronic thing when you lose a Jim Clark, an Ayrton Senna, a Dale Earnhardt," Gurney said. "These people had dealt with almost everything that can be served up by luck, technology and competition, and all the various elements. They’d proven their so-called mastery over it and then along comes a rogue wave or something and it gets ’em.

"During a war you see it a lot. A guy goes out, keeps coming home on missions and things, and all of a sudden he doesn’t."

That is a very chilling thought, but Gurney’s experiences in racing proves the point, that it was difficult to become friendly with a teammate or rival if you didn’t know if they would be alive when the checkered flag fell.

"I’ve known about 100, well enough to shake their hand, that haven’t made it," he added.

There was a body count in Formula One and Indy car racing on a regular basis and, at that time, it was an unquestioned part of the business.

Gurney raced, one-year, for the vaunted factory Ferrari team whose blood-red cars with the Prancing Horse decal were called deathtraps when driver after driver perished in them.

He feels that the nickname was an overstatement. You must consider the whole situation.

"The circuits that they voluntarily ran on, the state of the art of tires, suspensions and aerodynamics, it was incredible," Gurney explained.

In those days crowd control was virtually non-existent, there were no guardrails or catch fences. Trees were not fenced off.

It took another world champion, Jackie Stewart, to bring the issue of track safety to the attention of race promoters in the 1970s. Finally, ARMCO steel guard rails began appearing at race tracks in Europe.

The invention of fuel cells, self-sealing fuel tanks, which came into heavy production for Vietnam War-era helicopters, further reduced the risk of car fires in the case of a punctured fuel tank.

The numbers of fatalities came down, but never stopped entirely.

Dale Earnhart’s death may be a stunning tragedy in the United States, but when Senna died in Imola in 1994, that shockwave was felt around the world.

"Some people" rediscovered that racing still had an element of risk.

Risk is an element of every person’s life. And some of choose a riskier life over the safe and secure one.

Gurney knows it.

"It is dangerous," he said. "Explorers used to take great risks. I think it’s a human thing, it’s not a general thing, but it’s there. I think you have to have a certain nut-case kind of outlook on things to do it."

"You did it," I pointed out.

"That’s right," Gurney laughed. "I had it. I don’t’ think it ever leaves you entirely, but I guarantee you that the various people that felt it was there in Dale’s case, I’m sure it was there with Aryton Senna and Jimmy and all the other guys that came before."

Like the soldier who straps a rifle on the shoulder or pilot who buckles into a military airplane, despite years of training, experience and luck. They don’t always come home.

Just like Dale Earnhardt.

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