There's nothing Ken Schrader can do to erase the image he has of seeing Dale Earnhardt dead in his car.
Unlike his fellow competitors, who didn't learn Earnhardt was dead until well after the accident on the final lap of the Daytona 500, Schrader knew how bad it was the moment he poked his head into the battered No. 3 car and saw his lifeless body.
"What I saw in the car that day, that will stay with you," Schrader said in his first extensive interview about the wreck. "I saw a friend in trouble. I didn't know for certain [he was dead], but I would have bet. That sticks with you."
Schrader was battling a pack of cars when The Intimidator's car made contact with Sterling Marlin's and went shooting up the high banking into the Turn 4 wall. Schrader couldn't avoid hitting Earnhardt's car on the passenger side. After the two cars slid down the track and onto the grass, Schrader rushed over to check on his friend.
"Out of compassion for his friend, he went to the car and I think maybe he saw more than what he bargained for," said Schrader's wife, Ann. "But at the same time, he takes comfort in that one of the last people Dale might have seen and heard was Kenny, a friend who was there for him."
Schrader's next thought was to go to Michael Waltrip, who was celebrating his first win, unaware of Earnhardt's death.
On his way, Schrader was stopped by a TV crew and asked about Earnhardt. His face was pale and his voice shaky when he lied and said he didn't know.
"I didn't think it was my place to tell the world," Schrader said. "But anybody I've talked to before--and I've even got a lot of e-mails from fans who know me only from watching me doing interviews--they said they knew it was serious from that interview."
Then he delivered the bad news to Waltrip, who had just won NASCAR's biggest race for the first time in a car owned by Earnhardt.
"I didn't know what the final deal was, so I just told him it was big and Dale was in trouble," Schrader said. "It was Mikey's biggest moment, and you're adding news that he doesn't want. But I knew he'd want to know."
The hardest part was yet to come. Schrader had to talk to his 11-year-old daughter, a fan of The Intimidator and friend of Earnhardt's daughter, Taylor.
The summer before, Dorothy Schrader had spent a week with the Earnhardts on their yacht. Earnhardt later told Schrader how Dorothy had been homesick.
"Dale said he just had to get her up in his lap and just hug on her a while until she got over it," Schrader said. "So it was hard for her, she had a lot of questions and a lot of concern for Taylor."
Schrader also had his own emotions to deal with. How would Earnhardt's death affect him? In the end, he decided he wouldn't let it.
A racer through and through who spends his time away from Winston Cup at dirt tracks and other small circuits, Schrader had seen death before.
"He knows things can happen in a race car," Ann Schrader said. "Because he's a racer, he has a very realistic attitude and has been able to cope with it."
There were rumors at the next week's race that Schrader was going to quit, that what he had seen in Earnhardt's car--which he won't discuss in detail--was just too much to overcome. Schrader scoffs at talk of retirement.
"When I walked up to that car, I thought about a lot of things over the next couple of hours," he said, "and quitting was never on the list."