Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Missing Dale Earnhardt

Today, April 29, would have been Dale Earnhardt's 57th birthday, and I've had a difficult time thinking about what might be different about Nascar today, had Dale survived February 18, 2001. Ever since Dale entered the Cup series full time in the 1979 season, the sport changed radically, and a lot of the credit for that can be laid squarely on Earnhardt's shoulders.

Dale went from a hungry, wide eyed, total disaster at times on the race track to becoming Nascar's first international star. He saw the sport through some of the most important changes that the sport has ever seen, and when he left, suddenly, on a Sunday afternoon in February, not only did the sport change for ever, but for some, the entire world changed as well.

We will never know exactly what the Nascar would look like had Dale lived. We can only speculate, and as fun or as sad, depending on your point of view, that might be, we're still only guessing. One thing we do know is that Dale Earnhardt was very instrumental in the exploding popularity of Nascar in the 1990's. Had Dale lived beyond the first race of 2001, Nascar might be the most watched sport in America, by far. Dale was 49 years old when he died, but he still provided the Nascar world specifically, and the entire sporting world as a whole, a ton of excitement every time he climbed into his race car.

Dale Earnhardt electrified Nascar, starting back in 1979, when he won Rookie of the Year awards, followed by his first Winston Cup Championship in 1980, the first time in Nascar history, which is still a record unequaled, even by superstars of today, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. Dale Jr. didn't do it either, and neither did Tony Stewart or Kyle Busch. Some might say that the Nascar world is more competitive now than it was in Dale's early years, but back then, the cars were a lot harder to drive, with no air conditioning for the drivers, and with no power steering. If you look closely, most of today's crop of Nascar drivers are relatively small men. The drivers are certainly in good physical shape, but back when Earnhardt started in Nascar, most of the drivers were big, burly men. They had to be just to take the physical punishment that a 400 or 500, or even a 600 mile race exacted from their bodies. Earnhardt was a pretty big guy, compared to most of today's drivers.

No matter what his physical stature was, he soon became the driver that seemingly stood ten feet tall and bullet proof. Earnhardt endured horrible pain in his racing career, but never complained about it. Dale defied doctor's orders, and swore them to secrecy after bad crashes, just so he could get back into his race car the next weekend. I don't think he ever considered taking a week off, unless he physically couldn't walk out of the hospital. He never considered it, because racing was what he did. It's all he ever wanted to do.

Dale Earnhardt never finished high school, a shortcoming that he regretted for the rest of his life. He went sometimes to extremes with his children, trying to make sure they got the best education they could get. Dale seemed to regret very much that he disappointed his father by not graduating, and he was determined to see that his father Ralph's grandchildren did get a good education.

Dale came up hard, as we say here in the south. At times, he practically starved to support his racing. It was often said that if Dale had enough money to pay the power bill or to buy a new set of tires for his race car, the decision was a no brainer for him. He bought the tires. Dale's overwhelming desire to race eventually cost him 2 marriages, and custody of 3 of his 4 children, at least for a time. Dale lived to race, early in his life, but on the day he died, he was a content family man.

It's pretty much assured that had Dale lived, he would be retired by now. Knowing Dale, he might still have run an All Star race or a Shootout, just for fun, or he might be running a few races in the Trucks series even. We'll never know, obviously, but we do know he would probably have been a very successful team owner, at the very least.

Dale was called the Intimidator, because many drivers lost their poise when they saw the black number 3 Chevrolet on their back bumper, especially late in the race. Dale never drove for consistency, he always drove to win. His steely eyes could back down the pushiest reporter, when he didn't like the questions they were asking. Dale also could be very friendly and open, giving up a lot of his time to try to satisfy the growing craving for all things Earnhardt, allowing camera crews onto his private property, to allow himself being photographed hunting and fishing. I know first hand that Dale was very gracious when it came to contacting with his fans. When he signed autographs, which was often, he would meet his fans with eye contact and his famous smile. Dale Earnhardt always knew on which side his bread was buttered. He raced hard, because he was great at doing it, and he was very appreciative of his fans, because he always knew that his fans helped to make him what he was.

Dale Earnhardt had an extremely good head for business, basically inventing the modern Nascar marketing phenomena that we experience today. Dale very quickly understood the demand that tee shirts and die cast cars might become, and he capitalized on it, making a fortune in the process. Dale went from being the guy that couldn't pay his bills to a multimillionaire, but he never really changed as a person. He lived in nice houses, drove nice cars, bought a private jet, but Dale never really changed from the kid who grew up in Kannapolis, NC. He never lived more than a few miles from the home he grew up in.

Dale Earnhardt was many things to many people, but to me he was more than a race car driver. Dale was a hero, in the truest sense. Dale beat the odds, succeeded on levels that are difficult to comprehend, and did most of it by sheer determination and will. That's a hero in my mind, and as long as I live, I'll never forget Dale Earnhardt.

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