Note: This was originally posted February 18, 2007.
This is one of the most joyous days and one of the saddest days for me. Six years ago today we lost the pillar of our sport, Dale Earnhardt. Today we celebrate the official beginning of the Nextel Cup season with the 48th (maybe 49th? I don't know, I understand that the Daytona track opened in 1959, which was 4 (or 5?) years before my birth) running of the Daytona 500.
On this day 6 years ago, we lost possibly the greatest driver in the history of stock car racing. In my opinion, he was the greatest. For me, the world turned upside down when I heard the news that Dale Earnhardt had died after his crash in the 4th turn at Daytona. I was basically speechless for about 2 days afterwards. Words still do not express the shock and sadness I felt that day. Did I know Dale Earnhardt personally? No. I never even shook his hand. I saw him in person maybe 4 times in my life, the closest I actually ever was to him was back in the early 90's at the South Carolina Upper State Fair, next to Greenville-Pickens Speedway, where his father, Ralph Earnhardt raced many, many times. I stood for about an hour as he signed autographs under a tent on a hot South Carolina fall day. I didn't have anything for him to sign, so I just stood there, about 20 feet away, and watched him sign and sign and sign.
I noticed that he had a smile for everyone that walked by. He was wearing his trademark sunglasses, but every once in a while, he'd remove them and wipe the sweat from his eyes. At one point, near the end of his session, he actually stood up, walked around in a circle, just to stretch his legs, I suppose, and then sat down again. While he was turning that brief circle, with his sunglasses off, his eyes fixed on mine, for just a brief second. I smiled, and he smiled back. It happened in just a fraction of a second. But it happened. For just a moment, I experienced that Earnhardt stare first hand. But it was friendly. I wasn't scared.
At the time I was a sorta fan of his. You know what a sorta fan is. I admired his driving ability, but didn't like how he sometimes spun out other drivers I liked. I had a lot of respect for him though, and I suppose that's why I stood there in the hot sun for nearly an hour, just watching him.
Every move he made, even just sitting there in that chair was with quiet purpose. There was never a wasted motion, not even one. I thought at the time that this was a deliberate man, and man on a mission, even just sitting there signing autographs. He would sign mostly pictures of himself, and sometimes a piece of sheet metal, and sometimes a shirt or a hat. Sometimes he spoke to the fan presenting the object to be signed, and a few times I even heard him laugh. At one point, he stood up, clasped a man's hand, and I heard him say "You know I love you, man." I assumed that this must have been an old time fan that he recognized. This was nearly a decade before Fox, NBC, and TNT. This was back in what some of us old timers call the good old days of Nascar, when drivers were there to meet and greet, and before a lot of drivers achieved what is not common: superstar status.
My heart melted a bit that day, but not because I was standing in the hot sun. I realized that one of Nascar's most hated was actually a nice guy, and he really was just a pretty average guy at that. If not for the famous mustache and sunglasses, he could have easily fit into the crowd at the fair that day. When you looked at Dale Earnhardt, you didn't think celebrity, or famous, you just thought "working man".
And literally a working man he was. Ralph Dale Earnhardt came up hard, as we say in the south. He had practically nothing given to him, he had to work for everything he ever had. He suffered a lot of the common man's woes; poverty, divorce, hunger, and failure early in his career.
Within a couple of years of this event, I was fully a Dale Earnhardt fan. It's hard not to like seeing a guy penalized a lap for rough driving and come back and win (remember this is way before the free or lucky dog pass) at any race track. The man just never gave up. Another quaint southern saying is "he had no 'quit' in him".
Today, there's no surprise that even 6 long years after his death, Dale Earnhardt is still loved and cherished by millions of Nascar fans. Dale Earnhardt was every person's dream come true in a way. He went from starving to becoming an executive who owned his own land, his own lakes, his own jets, and had what most of us would consider a wonderful life at the time of his death. I'm guessing that even with the drive that he always had, Dale Earnhardt died a happy man.
Today I pray that all of the drivers survive this, one of the more dangerous races of the season. I'm not going to pray for a winner, but I'll pray that all are survivors.