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In the NASCAR world, crashes simply come with the territory. Even before his untimely death, Dale Earnhardt had experienced that reality firsthand, especially during a scary incident at Pocono Raceway in 1979.

On that fateful afternoon, the Intimidator slammed into the wall and needed to be airlifted to the hospital. At one point, Earnhardt even thought he was “going to heaven.”

Dale Earnhardt had a variety of nicknames, including Ironhead

In the world of professional sports, plenty of athletes have earned iconic nicknames. During his time behind the wheel, Earnhardt was no exception.

Earnhardt’s most famous moniker was, of course, the Intimidator. As you might assume, he earned that nickname with a combination of his fearless driving and icy stare. Similarly, some called him “The Man in Black” due to his iconic No. 3 car and willingness to play the villain.

Others preferred to call Earnhardt “Mr. Restrictor Plate” due to his success on restrictor-plate tracks. In an ironic twist, though, he felt that reducing a car’s speed flew in the face of everything NASCAR stood for. The North Carolina native was also known as “Big E” and “Mr. Chevrolet,” both of which are a bit more self-explanatory.

Earlier in his career, however, Earnhardt also picked up the title of “Ironhead.” While that would seem to suggest a level of stubbornness — think hard-headed, but taken to the next level — it could have a different origin.

Earning the nickname Ironhead and taking a premature trip to heaven

Dale Earnhardt's NASCAR flips at Pocono Raceway.
Dale Earnhardt flips his car at the Pocono Raceway. | Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images

In November 1990, Dale Earnhardt appeared as a guest on Late Night With David Letterman. While the NASCAR star answered plenty of questions, he did provide some insight into both his Ironhead nickname and a scary crash.

“Well, that’s Bobby Allison’s nickname for me,” Earnhardt explained when the host asked about the title of Ironhead. “I hit the wall in Pocono, and it put me out. Knocked me out.”

Letterman then followed up by asking for more details about that crash. The Intimidator admitted that he was going around 160 mph at the time and hit the wall driver’s side first. Understandably, that left him in pretty rough shape.

“They was transporting me to the hospital in a helicopter,” he continued. “It was a narrow helicopter; my feet were out one side and my head out the other. I sort of came to a little bit [and] remember a lot of air and sky. And I thought I was going to heaven.”

Dale Earnhardt, of course, didn’t go to heaven at that time


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Given that he told the story on a late-night TV show, it’s not clear if Earnhardt legitimately thought he was heading to the great beyond or just playing things up for laughs. Either way, though, the actual crash in question was still pretty serious.

As documented by the Washington Post, Earnhardt hit the wall hard in 1979, his rookie year on the Cup Series circuit. He left the track with “a concussion, heart bruises, a broken collar bone and pelvis,” requiring the aforementioned airlift to the hospital.

Earnhardt, of course, went on to find plenty of success on the stock car circuit. He’d claim his first Cup Series championship in 1980 and piled up six more titles before his death. Even though he’s no longer behind the wheel, his name still stands tall in motorsports history.

If the Intimidator believed he got a second chance at life, he certainly made the most of it.