When he straps on his helmet for this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, Jordan Taylor will be thinking of Dale Earnhardt – just as he does heading into the Rolex 24 at Daytona every year.
The co-driver of the No. 3 Corvette has heard the legendary stories for a decade from veterans Johnny O’Connell and Andy Pilgrim about “The Intimidator’s” lone start in the 2001 Rolex 24, and one tale (even if it might be apocryphal) is his favorite.
When the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion whipped his yellow Corvette Racing GT around the high banks of Daytona International Speedway, Earnhardt somehow managed to illuminate the rev limiter on the car’s dashboard while running alone – a feat that his highly accomplished teammates could achieve only by drafting off the slipstream of another car.
It was an affirmation of Earnhardt’s uncanny ability to harness Daytona’s finicky aerodynamics whether he was manhandling through a pack of stock cars or gracefully navigating a racing line with the precision of a sleek sports car.
“He was doing something around the oval that us road course guys just didn’t know,” Taylor told NBC Sports with a sense of wonder. “The first time I heard it in 2011, I thought it was the craziest thing.
— Jordan Taylor (@jordan10taylor) August 17, 2021
“There are still those myths inside our team that he was doing something around turns 3 and 4 and into the trioval that set him apart. He only did one race with the team, and they still talk about it to this day. I can respect what kind of man he was to keep that legacy. I think about it every single year when I go to Daytona.”
When the three-time Rolex 24 winner (including overall titles in 2017 and ’19) hops a Wednesday flight to France, he will be thinking again of Earnhardt – and ensuring “The Man in Black” also is remembered by everyone watching one of the biggest races in the world.
Taylor, 30, will race the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a black replica helmet with the logos of GM Racing, Chevrolet, Goodwrench Service Plus and Snap-on branding that became synonymous with Earnhardt and his famous No. 3 Chevy.
“He’s ‘The Intimidator,’ and I honestly feel a little bit intimidated to wear it,” Taylor said with a laugh. “Because it is his look. It’s who he is. It’s what everyone knew when they looked at the TV. He had an open-faced helmet, so you could see who he was, but I think even if you saw the back quarter of the helmet with just these logos, you knew it was Dale Sr. and ‘The Intimidator.’
“I’m really looking forward to it. I know the NASCAR community will love to see it come back, and I know the sports car racing community, especially in France, they’re a really motorsports-driven community, and I know they’ll love it.”
The design, which also will include a stylized No. 3 on the front and back, will blend with Taylor’s regular helmet (which features a “J” with stars). It was created by Savage Designs of Melbourne, Florida, and owner Mike Savage “probably painted the helmet three or four times to get it how we wanted it,” Taylor said. “I think it came out really well. The few people I’ve shown it to in person have loved it, so I think the people in France will really respond to it well.”
Because he wanted the logos to reflect their 1990s origins, Taylor cleared the helmet with GM Racing and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was the first person texted by Taylor when the project began two months ago.
Earnhardt Jr. immediately replied “This is gonna be awesome” and offered help to ensure the helmet’s historical accuracy and legitimacy.
“He was obviously the first guy I asked to make sure he was OK with me doing the helmet, and he was super excited,” Taylor said of Earnhardt Jr. “Which was really cool. He’s a busy guy and has a lot more important things to do. So it was nice he spent all the time. I texted (an image) during one of the broadcasts, and he texted me back during a commercial break to say, ‘Yeah, this looks accurate. It looks good!’ I really appreciated that.”
The 2001 Rolex 24 was one of Earnhardt’s last races before he was killed two weeks later in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500. Earnhardt Jr. co-drove in the 2001 Rolex 24 with his father and has kept a street model replica of the 2001 No. 3 Corvette (his father was due a matching version).
“This is a bit of a symbolic piece for me,” Earnhardt Jr. said during a 2019 episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “Something that we did together at the end of his life. I only have a handful of cars to my name, and there’s only one or two that I will never ever get rid of, and this is one of them. I’ll always have this. … It means more to me now than I ever thought it would. When we decided to have these cars made, I didn’t know Dad was going to be taken from us just a short time later.”
Taylor, who has watched videos of the Earnhardts’ interviews from the 2001 Rolex 24, can relate to the family bonds as the son of the team owner for three of the past four Rolex 24 victories. Jordan and Wayne Taylor raced together once in the Rolex 24 in 2014.
“That was my only chance to drive with my dad,” Jordan Taylor said. “I think the 2001 Rolex was (Earnhardt Jr.’s) only chance to be his dad’s teammate. Watching all the old footage and seeing Dale Jr. racing at the same time is really cool to see they were racing against each other. It’s something I didn’t get to do as a driver, but I think it was really special to be a driver’s son and talk back and forth with Dale Jr. about what it’s like.”
The Earnhardt helmet tribute for Le Mans also is special because the No. 3 C8.R Corvette also won the GTLM class of this year’s Rolex 24 with Taylor and co-drivers Antonio Garcia and Nicky Catsburg.
“The pass that won us the race was a side draft and get to the lead into the trioval, so it was kind of a NASCAR-style win,” Taylor said. “We are in the 3 car, it’s a Corvette, and it’s Daytona. It was (Earnhardt’s) playground. I think anytime we have those sorts of moments, you think of that history and what he was able to do.”
Taylor is expecting the same appreciation for his Earnhardt helmet in France from the Le Mans fans, who enthusiastically greeted his 2012 debut.
“I was a 21-year old American driver who hadn’t done much in his career, and tons of people knew who I was and had pictures printed out of me from go-karts,” said Taylor, who will be making his seventh 24 Hours of Le Mans start in the Aug. 21-22 race. “Things I’d never see at an American racetrack. Their heritage and lineage to American motorsport is really special and deep. Not just sports car racing and Formula One, they follow NASCAR and motorsport as a whole.
“An icon like a Dale Sr. that really changed the sport as a whole, everyone is going to know about. When they see the helmet, they’ll understand, especially when they associate it with the No. 3 and a Corvette. They’ll know the whole package.”
They also will witness a ceremonial closing of the loop in Earnhardt’s illustrious Hall of Fame career. Corvette Racing had mapped out the logistical framework for having Earnhardt race at Le Mans. “Going to Le Mans was going to be like the pinnacle for (Earnhardt),” former program manager Doug Fehan told NBC Sports in 2019. “It was his dream.”
Earnhardt Jr. has said he is “absolutely 100 percent sure” his father would have raced in the 24-hour sports car classic, meaning Taylor symbolically will be carrying the torch to the finish for an auto racing icon with the “Imitator of ‘The Intimidator’ ” helmet.
“It’s kind of scary to think of that way,” Taylor said. “At the same time, I’m very honored to take a piece of his helmet and design, and hopefully we can do him proud and do Dale Jr. proud as well. His dad wasn’t able to go there in person, but I’m sure he was going to at some point in his career.
“I’m proud to be able to carry on that legacy to the finish line at Le Mans.”