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Tragedy Struck Daytona 500 in 2001 - 2001-12-29


Several sports and athletes saw winning streaks extended amid stiff competition and grueling schedules in 2001. VOA's Jim Stevenson looks back at some highlights of the past year, which also included an untimely accident that abruptly ended the stellar career of a seasoned athlete.

In auto racing, tragedy came in the final lap of U.S. stock car racing's biggest event, the Daytona 500 mile race in Florida. Star driver Dale Earnhardt slammed into the outside wall in sight of the finish line, instantly killing the five-time season champion. Speculation over the integrity of Earnhardt's seat belt restraints fueled debate about the way he died. Ahead of Earnhardt on the track was teammate Daryl Waltrip, who won his first NASCAR race. Waltrip talked about the emotional highs and lows of his experience.

"Dale and I would talk all the time about one day of me driving for him. And yesterday was our day. I just could not wait. I won the race and I was telling everybody about it," Mr. Waltrip said. 'And I just could not wait until I got that big grab on the neck and big hug. I just knew any minute Dale was going to run into victory lane and say that is what I am talking about right there.' But that was not to be. My belief is that in a twinkle of an eye, you are in the presence of the Lord. And that is where I think Dale is."

NASCAR racing rolled on as drivers like Dale Jarrett defended their sport.

"Regardless of what they may think looking from the outside about our sport that you know we are here on a death wish anyway," he said. "That is not the case. It is more dangerous to drive to work every day than it is for us to do what we do. Nobody makes us get in these things. We do it by choice. And if they do not like what we do, then they should not watch it and not be concerned with what we do."

By the end of the season, Jeff Gordon emerged with his fourth NASCAR driving championship. Gordon joined legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as the only drivers to win the title four or more times.

"I never dreamed I would get to Winston Cup and win a race, let alone win four Winston Cup championships," he said. "Because I know how difficult it is to do, doing it four times is just unbelievably gratifying and fulfilling in every way."

Also on the track, German Michael Schumacher claimed his second straight driving title in Formula One racing. With 123 points, Schumacher outclassed the field in his Ferrari and was comfortably ahead of David Coulthard of Britain, who placed second with 65 points in the final standings. Ruebens Barrichello of Brazil was third.

In boxing, it was a difficult year for heavyweights to retain their titles. Lennox Lewis of Britain lost his World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation belts in an upset to American Hasim Rachman. Lewis was able to reclaim the titles in a rematch which he says vindicates his status.

"A lot of people are talking about my legacy, am I worried, trying to create some pressure for me," heid. "But I believe we create our own pressure. I have got an arsenal filled with punches that I can throw at any moment."

Lewis is hoping to fight former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson next year. Despite legal disputes about upcoming fight schedules, Tyson also wants to step in the ring against Lewis.

"It is the only fight really. But I am not going to dwindle my life away dwelling on it. But it really is the only fight I want," he said.

Repeat victories have become a habit for American Lance Armstrong. Flanked by his U.S. Postal Service teammates, Armstrong made another stunning climb through steep mountains to capture his third straight Tour de France cycling title.

"They are all different. This is special. When you work so hard and your team works so hard and they sacrifice a lot and you finally get the win, it is great," Mr. Armstrong said. "The team was consistent and I think my performances were consistent along the way, which made it a comfortable tour." Armstrong overcame testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain before winning his first Tour de France title in 1999. That accomplishment led many of his rival cyclists to believe Armstrong was using performance enhancing drugs. Armstrong said he was not upset by the allegations.

"I do not think any sports team or any athlete has ever come under this kind of scrutiny, with examining three weeks worth of urine in the hardest sporting event in the world, in the most beautiful sporting event in the world. So I am not angry. I am actually relieved and happy," he said.

Lance Armstrong reached the coveted number one ranking in cycling during 2001, and is already aiming at a fourth straight Tour de France title in 2002.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001