Friday, February 18, 2011

Death of a Legend - 10 Years Later

February 18, 2001. Daytona Beach, Florida. The Speedway. The 43rd running of the Great American Race, the Daytona 500. Dale Earnhardt Incorporated (DEI) drivers Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are first and second respectively as they come around to take the checkered flag. Richard Childress Racing (RCR) great Dale Earnhardt, fending off the field, gets into trouble and hits the wall a split second before his driver takes the checkered flag winning not only his first Daytona 500, but his first Cup race. Although fans would not know for hours later, Dale Earnhardt died upon impact, never seeing his team driver make it to Victory Lane. The only thing the fans knew was that a celebration was going on and Dale had an accident, a seemingly fine one because there were no stupendous flips, wild rides, or the like. It was a head-on smack to the wall – short, hard, and powerful. Darrell Waltrip, calling the race and voice dripping with pride and emotion over his little brother’s win, gave the viewership their only sense of uneasiness of Dale Earnhardt’s condition. He said, “I hope Dale’s okay” in a quivering voice that still haunts those who remember. If Darrell was worried, then we should be, too.

The rest of the day was awash in fear, panic, unknowingness, and sadness. When the announcement finally came Mike Helton’s strong, tall, and authoritative presence was visibly diminished as he reported that Dale Earnhardt was dead. The NASCAR Nation howled “NO” and a sport mourned one of its greats. If you weren’t a NASCAR fan in 2001 you still knew who Dale Earnhardt was. He was an ambassador for the sport. He was a mastermind of marketing and put his name on everything. His name, like King Richard Petty, was nearly synonymous with NASCAR. And, at the height of his career, he was gone.

If you want to know why I love NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt is the reason. King Richard Petty, as much as I like and admire him, was my daddy’s racecar driver. Dale Earnhardt was mine. With one foot, hell, both feet firmly planted in NASCAR’s roots, living a hard life to make it week in and week out, failed marriages due to his mistress, RACING, and a hunger to win unparalleled by any around, Dale Earnhardt was the poster boy of hard work paying off. Sure he was vastly successful when I started watching NASCAR in earnest in the fall of 1990, but he was still a farmer, a grease monkey working on the car, and a man’s man, hunting, fishing, practical joking. But put a helmet on him (open faced) and strap a racecar to him, and Dale became the Intimidator to his very core. He was the master of the psychological game on the track. Hi car was wider than the track, he could move through traffic effortlessly, and could and did make his racecar do things that are still legendary.  His interviews were colorful, his passion for his wife visible, and his love of his son, Dale Jr., and little girl Taylor Nicole completely evident. Dale helped people, including fellow racers. From rookie Jeff Gordon, who learned a mountain of information from Dale, to Michael Waltrip who was revived by Dale, and even Ernie Irvan who was walked around with Dale’s arm draped over his shoulder being taught the ‘rules of conduct’.

Dale Earnhardt was Everyman to his fans. He was kind, funny, caring, intense, and hard working. He expected a lot from others because he himself did so much. He was, however, not loved by all, and that was more than fine with Dale Earnhardt. He even told Jeff Gordon that he never minded the “Boo’s” he received during driver introductions, because the fans were passionate. Cheer or jeer, it didn’t matter to Dale, but if the fans were apathetic, it was over. That advice certainly helped Jeff Gordon over the years! So, no, Dale Earnhardt was not loved universally, but he was loved by me and countless others. The number “3” flag still flies proudly at every NASCAR event. His merchandise still sells. I, for one, when asked who my driver is, still say Dale Earnhardt. I still put me three fingers up on the third lap of every race, and I still ache when I watch programs about or featuring Dale Earnhardt. Ten years later and I’m moving on, NASCAR has moved on, and life goes on, but he is still a huge part of the sport.

My cousin is lucky enough to be in Daytona this week. He’s been terrific about sending me continuous news and pictures of all he sees and witnesses. There is a carnival-like atmosphere in Daytona. But, he does relay that there are indeed many tributes taking place in honor of the 10th Anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s passing. He said they are poignant. Today will be a rough, emotional day for Dale Earnhardt fans and NASCAR fans alike. “A Day of Remembrance” in your heart is taking place from 9-12n in honor of Dale Earnhardt. Any time I think of NASCAR I think of Dale Earnhardt. Today it will be most acute. If you have a connection to Dale Earnhardt, join me in this tribute.

Racer 187 donning Dale Earnhardt hat and jacket 2009
I chose to think of Dale in some sort of NASCAR Heaven where he gets to hang out with those who passed before and after him – his daddy, Neil Bonnet (his best friend), Adam Petty, Davey Allison, Alan Kulwicki, and scores of others. They all get to race whenever they want to, drink, tell stories, hunt, fish, laugh, and, when they get the hankerin’, look down to see how NASCAR is doing. I hope they’d be pleased.


  1. I first heard about old Ironhead in the UK Motor Sport press, his exploits racing Darrell Waltrip used to be one of the highlights of the reading week.

    The closest I ever got to see him race was on TV in Toronto in '88, the family I was staying with was split down the middle in their support for Dale and Darrell I'd never seen anything like that level of passion for and against a driver, soon as the race was over everything returned to normal because each side of the family had nothing but respect for the other drivers achievements.

    I'd lost touch with the sport by 2001 but I still remember hearing of his passing with disbelief through the then new to me internet.

  2. I will have my 3 hat on for the next 3 days.

  3. Dale Changed NASCAR racing forever in so many ways. King Richard brought the quick pit(or the bigginings of It) Dale brought the money to NASCAR He was not only an awesome racer, he was a merchandising marketing genius. The Changes to NASCAR did'nt end with his passing, which ushered in an era of soft walls, head and neck restraints and a whole bevy of new NASCAR safety practices. In the end, we miss his quick easy smile, his joking and horseplaying with the other drivers, and I'll bet even the driver miss the shudder of seeing that Black #3 in their mirror.

  4. When you come to the Charlotte area later this year, you should put the Dale Earnhardt Tribute in Kannapolis on your itinerary.

    A lot of our news is about Dale. There is a candlelight memorial (vigil thing) at DEI tonight from 6-9.

    I still weep when I hear DW call those last laps and Mike Helton's announcement.

    I started watching NASCAR in 2000, so I was only able to see him race for one year. I regret not paying closer attention at the 2000 Coca-Cola 600 to Dale Sr.'s driving.