Some Blame Marlin in Hero's Death

Wednesday, February 21st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Sterling Marlin was stunned when he returned home after the Daytona 500 and found he was being blamed for starting the crash that killed Dale Earnhardt.

``The first thing, you go in and turn the news on and some reporter is on TV saying that ... the vicious tap that I gave Dale Earnhardt sent him into the wall,'' Marlin said. ``You just want to climb right into the TV and pull the guy out of there.''

That was just the beginning of the storm.

Monday, the day after the fateful race, Marlin's Web site was bombarded by ugly e-mail. Threats against him and his family were phoned to his race shop in Mooresville, N.C.

``Maybe people are frustrated and just looking for somebody to blame. I'd do anything to not be here today, to not address this subject,'' Marlin said Tuesday, speaking for the first time since the racing world learned of Earnhardt's death Sunday night.

``If people just come back to their senses, listen to what everybody's saying and watch the tape, that's all I ask,'' he said from his home in Columbia, Tenn.

Earnhardt was killed on the last turn of the last lap of NASCAR's season-opening race, slamming head-on into the concrete wall after making contact with Marlin at the front of a tight pack of five cars fighting for position.

``I definitely didn't do anything intentional. We were just racing our guts out on the last lap of the Daytona 500,'' said Marlin, a two-time Daytona 500 winner who was longtime competitor and friend of Earnhardt's.

``I've only seen the tape once, but from what I saw, it was a totally racing accident,'' he said. ``Kenny (Schrader) pulled up to make it three-deep going in, with me on the bottom.

``Some other guys were closing fast and I think Rusty (Wallace) got up on him and got him loose. Dale and my car barely touched, and it sent my car across the apron, and Dale's, too. He overcorrected, and then I didn't see him again.''

Marlin somehow kept his car going straight and went on to finish fifth in the season-opening race.

``It was pure luck I caught it,'' he said. ``When you run across the apron at Daytona at 180 miles an hour, you usually don't come back.''

Earnhardt wasn't as fortunate, sliding into Schrader. The two of them hit the wall. The 49-year-old Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion and the greatest driver of his era, died instantly of massive head injuries.

Almost immediately, the threats and e-mails started for Marlin, forcing a temporary shutdown of the driver's Web site and a policeman to be stationed in front of the race shop.

Chip Ganassi Racing team spokeswoman Gigi Liberati declined to go into detail about the phone calls and electronic messages, and she declined to say what kind of security measures have been taken.

``You have to look at every threat as serious. I obviously can't go into detail about what will be done, but there will be precautions,'' she said.

By Tuesday, however, Marlin said the hate mail slowly turned to messages of support.

``I didn't look at the computer, but I heard it did have some pretty bad stuff on it,'' he said. ``Today, I heard it was all reversed. The calls I got, there wasn't a negative call from anybody.''

Marlin agreed with NASCAR's decision to go on with the race in Rockingham, N.C., on Sunday.

``Dale would want everybody to go and give it 100 percent,'' he said. ``In part, I dread it. But once you're in the car, nobody is messing with you. Dale had been doing this since he was a kid, and so have I. Getting in that race car is what we do.''

Although no one was seriously injured in the other wreck in Sunday's race — a 19-car pileup that looked far more dangerous than the accident that killed Earnhardt — new aerodynamic rules put in place by NASCAR to tighten on-track competition have come under scrutiny.

Marlin said he likes the fact that, with the new aero package for Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR's longest and fastest ovals, cars can pass and don't have to stay in long lines lap after lap.

On the negative side, it keeps the field bunched up at high speed, and one small slip by one driver can lead to disaster.

``I stayed awake all Sunday night trying to think how you'd fix it,'' Marlin said. ``Maybe we could sit down with some drivers and (NASCAR president) Mike Helton and them and try to fix it.''

The subject came up again Tuesday in a telephone conversation between Marlin and fellow driver Jeff Burton.

``He said, `How you going to fix it? You've got to fix it somehow.' ``Marlin said. ``They've got to get some way that the best cars that handle good can separate ... from the cars that don't handle good.''

The debate continues over the use of the Head And Neck Support device (HANS), which is worn around the neck and is intended to keep the driver's helmet from flying forward and hyperextending his neck after a hard impact.

Only a handful of drivers are using it.

Although he has issues with how the HANS device would affect his field of vision while racing and his exit from the car in an emergency, Marlin said, ``I'm going to look at it and try it. I think all the drivers will.''

As for Sunday's race, Marlin said, ``I'd like to go to Rockingham, dominate the race, win and dedicate it to Dale and his family.''