The deaths of Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven other people in a helicopter on Jan. 26 have shone a spotlight on athletes and their reliance on non-commercial air travel.

Few are more familiar with the issue than Dale Earnhardt Jr. On Aug. 15, the retired NASCAR driver had an experience that changed his life. The landing gear on the small passenger plane carrying him, his wife, Amy, and their daughter, Isla Rose, collapsed on impact. The aircraft left the runway and caught on fire. Earnhardt and his family suffered minor injuries. The two pilots and the family dog, Gus, escaped the crash without injury.

“It’s really tough for me to get back in a plane,” said Earnhardt, the honorary starter for Sunday’s rain-delayed Daytona 500. “Now that you know the realities and danger, it will never be the same. It’s something you’ll never be able to forget, ever block out, no matter how many flights you take.”

So how is Earnhardt coping with it? For one, he’s trying to learn everything he can about the flights he takes.

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“I’m diving into the deep end, trying to learn everything I can — the plane’s ability and the decisions they make and why they make them,” Earnhardt said. “It’s been extremely educational … and it’s kind of empowered me and given me more confidence in what we’re doing and that we are safe and I am going to be safe.”

Earnhardt sought advice on how to get over his fears and was told the only way to work through it was to get back in on a plane.

“The only way I can do that is to know everything I can possibly know about the exact trip we are going to take,” Earnhardt said. “That’s helped me a lot.”

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Earnhardt, whose father died racing in 2001, had 23 wins in his 19 years racing. He is part owner of JR Motorsports, which won Saturday’s Xfinity Series race. Earnhardt said he did not expect to field a car on the major circuit. He also works as an analyst on NBC Sports, which covers the NASCAR series the second half of the year.

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