Twenty years ago today, NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt died in a last-lap Daytona 500 crash.
It was an enormous loss for his family, his profession, and his legion of adoring fans – including McLaren Formula 1 driver Daniel Ricciardo.
“I remember vividly, the race 20 years ago and my reaction to the news,” says Ricciardo.
“I was crying. I called my friend at the time, Stephen, we raced karts together, and he was also a big Earnhardt fan.
“I called him as soon as I saw the news and we just basically cried on the phone together. He [Earnhardt] was a hero for sure.”
Ricciardo was an avid NASCAR fan who had a particular affinity for Earnhardt. He even attended a Texas Cup race in 2017 with a vintage ‘The Black Knight’ T-shirt.
— RCR (@RCRracing) November 5, 2017
Earnhardt and three-time F1 world champion Ayrton Senna were two drivers Ricciardo looked up to. But Earnhardt had a particular impact on Ricciardo.
When F1 introduced permanent driver numbers for 2014, Ricciardo picked the #3 for two reasons: it was his first number in karting, and it was a number synonymous with Earnhardt.
For many years, Ricciardo even ran an Earnhardt-style #3 on his crash helmet, which Earnhardt’s son Dale Jr approved of and Ricciardo called an “honour” to represent in F1.
That styling has disappeared since Ricciardo switched to a different type of helmet design after he left Red Bull for 2019, but he sees a deeper homage to Earnhardt in his F1 career.
“It was really in 2014, when I took on the number three, I also had in the back of my mind to take on the Intimidator [persona],” Ricciardo says, referring to one of Earnhardt’s main nicknames.
“My version of that was the honey badger [a fearless, aggressive animal in defence and attack].
“I felt it was really my year to make a bit of a statement, to be the guy that was not afraid to put on a big move, to race hard. I didn’t feel I’d quite had that yet.
“That first year with Red Bull was my chance to really make that statement, and to earn that reputation. Part of that was on the back of Earnhardt, and how he inspired me.”
The 2014 season was transformative for Ricciardo, who stepped up to Red Bull’s senior team from Toro Rosso. He was partnering four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel and, while highly-rated, he had not established himself as a potential title contender in his own right.
“Not many people were coming from a long way back and trying big passing moves. Perhaps I set a new level and showed people what was possible” :: Daniel Ricciardo
Ricciardo admits to not being a natural overtaker in karting, and by the time he was with Toro Rosso in F1 he was lacking some confidence. He says he was “probably a bit too overwhelmed by F1, and put it on a pedestal”.
He also knew he had to “shake off something like Bahrain 2012” because it had been “a setback to my reputation”.
Ricciardo made a mark that weekend with an excellent qualifying performance but that was wiped out immediately because he was pushed around on the opening lap and plummeted well outside the points. Sixth on the grid became 15th at the finish.
Going into 2014, Ricciardo knew he could either assert himself at the front of the field, or risk being seen as the “easy guy”.
An excellent front-row start and podium finish on his Red Bull debut, on home soil in Australia, set the tone even though it turned into a disqualification through no fault of his own.
Ricciardo, not Vettel, emerged as Mercedes’ likeliest threat through the season, and went on to score three victories: the first, in Canada, coming after some decisive overtakes.
In Hungary he had to hunt and pass the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. He also had a big Alonso fight in Germany that year.
That set a trend that has continued to this day, securing him a win like the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix and less headline-grabbing results like top-five finishes in Italy in 2014 (when he dive-bombed Vettel at the first chicane) and 2017 (when he did the same to Kimi Raikkonen).
And though his move into the midfield with Renault has reduced the stand-out moments, he still has his days – like charging through the field at Suzuka in 2019, or passing Charles Leclerc around the outside at the Nurburgring last year.
Simply put, Ricciardo’s overtaking highlights reel would still look like a feature-length film compared to some of his current F1 colleagues’ even though he’s not been a winner since May 2018.
“I feel ’14 didn’t just shape me and my approach from then on, it changed the level of overtaking from other guys in the sport as well,” Ricciardo claimed at the end of 2018.
“Not many people were doing that, coming from a long way back and trying big passing moves.
“Maybe they learned from me and the way I was racing, so perhaps I set a new level and showed people what was possible, and the drivers that were willing to try it were trying it.”
Ricciardo knew that sounded a bit cocky, but he believed it. And rightly so. He raised the standard. And he has since become exactly what he admired most about Earnhardt – and also Senna.
“Everyone was intimidated by him,” Ricciardo said of Earnhardt specifically ahead of the 2018 Canadian Grand Prix.
“But off-track they [Earnhardt and Senna] had a massive following and could balance that aggressiveness with humility off-track.
“I thought both Senna and Earnhardt carried that really well.”
Ricciardo is of that same mould today, carving out a reputation as F1’s greatest modern overtaker and one of the best drivers in the business.
He’s aggressive on-track, immensely popular off it. And has no doubt already inspired plenty of youngsters in the same way Earnhardt captured his attention so many years ago.