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Journalism Showcase: ‘Earnhardt is gone. But his impact on racing safety will never die.’

In new E60 documentary, 20 years after Dale Earnhardt’s death, ESPN’s Ryan McGee explores late NASCAR star’s legacy

Twenty years ago, Dale Earnhardt died during a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500. Following the loss of one of racing’s biggest stars, many wondered how NASCAR would respond.

In a new E60, ESPN senior writer Ryan McGee takes viewers back to Feb. 18, 2001, and shares Earnhardt’s impact on the sport. The hourlong “E60 Presents – Intimidator: The Lasting Legacy of Dale Earnhardt” premieres Sunday at Noon ET on ESPN.

McGee spoke with Front Row about his reporting.

With more than 25 years of experience covering NASCAR, did you learn anything new about Dale Earnhardt?
I didn’t realize at the time how much he supported the idea of “soft wall” barriers. I remember him coming into our ESPN Charlotte office in 2000, and he wanted to see video of a short track in New York that was using Styrofoam barriers. I wrote about that in our series this week, but it wasn’t until I talked with people for this story that I realized how much he had embraced the idea.

You previously worked with Dale Earnhardt Jr. on his 2018 book Racing to the Finish. Did that previous working relationship bring a level of trust when talking with him about his late father?
There is no doubt about it. Our experience on that book was very intense because we were diving into the very difficult topics of Dale Jr.’s health and vulnerability. That’s a hard conversation for anyone, but especially a race car driver. When it came to talking about his father for E60, I think we were able to jump right back into that same level of trust. His openness and honesty about the loss of his dad is really what elevated this project to another level.

How did you approach speaking with Kyle Petty? In 2000, Petty lost his son Adam in a crash at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
I was working as an ESPN associate producer in 2000 and covered Adam’s death. I wrote and produced the obituary piece we ran on ESPN that day. I knew Adam well, we were friends, and Kyle knows that, so I think there’s a level of trust there.

As a reporter, what do you hope the audience takes away?
To me, Dale Earnhardt has two legacies. Everyone knows about the 76 wins, seven Cup titles, ‘The Intimidator’ – all of that. I think the safety evolution that has taken place because of his death is just as important. From May 2000 through Feb. 18, 2001, I covered four NASCAR deaths in nine months. I covered so many funerals that I wanted to quit and find another sport to report on. Since Earnhardt’s Daytona 500, there have been zero deaths across NASCAR’s top three series. Earnhardt is gone. But his impact on racing safety will never die.

– Mike Skarka

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