DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. Fresh white paint covers the black mark on the Turn 4 wall where auto racing changed forever.
Other scars don’t disappear as quickly.
NASCAR returns to Daytona International Speedway this week, racing there for the first time since Dale Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap wreck at the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18.
The tragedy changed the landscape of one of the fastest growing sports in America, bringing safety issues to the fore and depriving stock car racing of its best-known character.
Earnhardt was the brooding specter in black, the brash bad boy who won seven Winston Cup championships, and always demanded the attention of race fans at tracks and souvenir stands.
“There’s nobody else like him, and there probably won’t be again,” said Bill Rollins, a fan from Davie whose family visited the track to pay homage to the Intimidator.
Like thousands who enter the Daytona USA exhibit next to the track each week, Rollins took the eerie ride through Turn 4 on a tram that whizzes tourists around the speedway.
Just as the tram zooms toward the spot of the crash, the radio broadcast of the end of the race is replayed.
“It sent chills down my spine,” Rollins said, “because of who he was and what happened there.”
Naturally, the drivers will feel the same way when they make their first turns around the track Thursday, the first day of practice for Daytona’s annual summertime race, the Pepsi 400.
“It’s something we all have to work through and it’s going to be the most difficult time we’ll all have to go through,” Dale Jarrett said. “But we’ll do it, and the good memories will be of the good races I had there with Dale.”
Facing other issues safety, and keeping fans interested despite the loss of one of the sport’s biggest stars could prove even more difficult.
“As an organization, we need to make sure we weren’t on the edge of a cliff” the day Earnhardt died, NASCAR president Mike Helton said.
Slowly since then, NASCAR has become more aggressive in reacting to safety concerns.
It is in the middle of an investigation into Earnhardt’s death, the results of which will be released in August. In the past, NASCAR often dealt with safety issues privately.
Another sign of progress: When NASCAR drivers Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin died in the months before Earnhardt’s fatal crash, both cars were destroyed. Earnhardt’s has been maintained so NASCAR and a handful of outside experts can determine what happened when his car slammed into the wall at about 150 mph.
Also, beginning this week, NASCAR will require a minimum 17-inch window opening on the driver’s side. Teams have tinkered with the size of the opening to try to improve aerodynamics.
The decision ensures drivers can climb out of cars while wearing bulky, protective restraining collars that some experts believe might have prevented the deaths of Earnhardt, Petty and Irwin.
Although not required by NASCAR, the majority of drivers are now wearing the HANS device. Fewer than 10 wore one at the Daytona 500.
NASCAR is also building a research and development shop in North Carolina.
“I’ve seen what they’ve done, and it’s impressive,” driver Ken Schrader said. “They’re certainly not sitting back and doing nothing.”
Carburetor restrictor plates, required by NASCAR to dampen horsepower to keep the 3,400-pound stock cars under 200 mph on the tracks in Daytona and Talladega the two longest and fastest ovals on the circuit made racing uncomfortable and difficult for the drivers even before Earnhardt’s death.
Rules changes last summer gave the cars a little extra throttle response which the drivers had begged for but it also made the racing even tighter and more difficult, with nearly constant two-and three-wide freight trains of cars throughout the long races.
“You can’t take a deep breath,” said Jeff Gordon, the current series leader and one of the most successful racers in recent years at both tracks. “After the races at Daytona and Talladega, I’ve had a gigantic headache. It’s just constant tension. It’s not much fun.”
The drivers got through the Talladega race in April without any serious wrecks or injuries, but the fact that this is the first time back in Daytona since Earnhardt’s death is weighing heavily on most minds.
“I’m just going to try not to think about it,” said Jeremy Mayfield, echoing a lot of other drivers. “I’m just going to try to block it out and go. It’s going to be weird, but what do you do? Everybody has to deal with what happened in their own way.”
While safety is a work in progress, fans still seem to be enjoying the sport even without Earnhardt.
TV ratings increased 29 percent in the first half of the season. Track officials in Daytona say ticket sales for the Pepsi 400 are ahead of last year and they expect to sell out grandstand seats more quickly.
Still, there are concerns about attendance in the second half of the season.
Earnhardt’s son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., certainly offers fans somebody to rally around. But there will never be another driver like the Intimidator, the daredevil who muscled his black No. 3 Chevrolet around the track.
“I’m still a race fan,” David Schmidt of Tampa said at Daytona USA. “But it probably won’t ever feel the same coming back here.”
Helton believes NASCAR is in good shape despite the loss of its most famous driver.
“I think we’re healthy,” he said. “Certainly, things could have been bigger if Dale were in the hunt for an eighth championship. But he’s not, and this is still a big sport with a lot to look forward to.”
Most drivers are looking no further forward than this weekend.
Elliott Sadler, who got his first career win earlier this season, said, “We still have a job to do. We have to race, and we know it’s going to be dangerous. It’s going to be bumper-to-bumper and three-wide pretty much the whole race, but we’ve got to do the best job we can to figure out how to win.
“I mean, it’s still a great race to win. It’s Daytona.”