Dale Earnhardt, one of the greatest drivers in auto racing history, died Sunday from injuries suffered in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500.
An autopsy performed today to determine the exact cause of death, revealed Earnhardt died of blunt force trauma to the head, officials in Florida's Volusia County said, adding that they will treat the death as a "motor vehicle accident."
The 49-year-old stock car legend was traveling 180 mph, when his car was tapped from behind, turned around and sent head-on into a wall, only moments before his teammate Michael Waltrip and his son Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished the race in first and second places. In this final lap, Earnhardt was actually holding back by blocking the pack of cars behind him to give his son Dale, Jr. a chance to win the race. That's when Ken Schrader broadsided Earnhardt's car.
Doctor: Earnhardt Died Instantly
Rescuers attempted CPR while Earnhardt was pinned in his car. One of the first doctors on the scene said he believed Earnhardt died instantly.He never regained consciousness after the crash.
"I could tell, it broke my heart what was going happening," said track physician Dr. Steve Bohannon.
"I watched my hero die," says Pat Polysen, who was aboard a rescue and recovery team truck that rushed to the scene Sunday.
Earnhardt was cut free from his vehicle and transported to Halifax Medical Center with his son Dale, Jr. by his side. Earnhardt was pronounced dead soon after arrival, Dr. Steve Bohannon said.
"This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements that I've ever had to personally make," said NASCAR president Mike Helton, "but after the accident in turn four at the Daytona 500 we've lost Dale Earnhardt."
NASCAR chairman Bill France spoke during a news conference in Daytona Beach today and said he "couldn't think of a time that has been more tough in NASCAR history."
"He was a dear friend and he really liked the sport," France said. "Dale built NASCAR to what it is today. He will be a part of the sport for many generations to come."
In an emotional moment during the press conference, Waltrip, said that as he passed the finish line he was thinking about getting a big congratulatory hug from Earnhardt. "He would have come up and given me that big hug," Waltrip said. "But it was apparent to me then that in the twinkle of an eye you are in the presence of the Lord."
‘The Intimidator’ Behind the Wheel; A Thoughtful Friend Off the Track
Earnhardt — nicknamed "The Intimidator" — was known for his aggressive, hard-charging driving style, but off the track, friends and fans described him as thoughtful and generous.
"No one more was respected and loved by other race drivers — those in racing and fans — than Dale Earnhardt," said ESPN NASCAR commentator Ed Dubrow.
"He will be missed and we don't have to wait for history to know that he was one of the greatest."
The seven-time Winston Cup champion had won the Daytona 500 in 1998, in his 20th appearance in the event. With a total of 76 Winston Cup victories, including 34 on the Daytona track, Earnhardt was most active driver on the circuit.
Other drivers marveled at Earnhardt's uncanny ability to position himself behind other cars, using them to cut through the wind and make his vehicle more aerodynamic.
Earnhart was one of the major figures in transforming stock car racing from a regional sport to the huge television spectacle it is today.