Dale Earnhardt's legacy stays strong a decade after death
Dale Earnhardt at the 1981 Talladega 500. (RACING PHOTO ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES)
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It stings in so many different ways: a mother overcome by grief after burying a son. A best friend mustering the strength to rev the engines again because quitting would sully the man's memory. Millions of fans crushed emotionally, waving three fingers in the sky in his honor as the blur of stock cars rumbles into Bristol and Charlotte and Talladega.
Many still can't come to terms with that fateful final lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001, when Dale Earnhardt's famous No. 3 Chevrolet Monte Carlo slid up the track and bounced off a wall at Turn Four.
Michael Waltrip, one of Dale's drivers for DEI Enterprises, had just won the biggest race of the year after going winless in 462 career starts. Waltrip started popping champagne at Victory Lane, sure that Dale wasn't hurt too badly. He waited for his buddy to bounce out of the infield care center, wrap his arms around his neck and give him a big bear hug.
But as the minutes ticked away, the best day of Waltrip's life unraveled into the worst day of his life.
Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR's iconic Man in Black, was dead.
The people, the sport, the dynamics of the industry — nothing has been the same since.
His ghost hovers, mostly because nobody wants to let go. The connection runs much deeper than the 76 races and seven Cup championships he won in a career spanning 27 years.
Earnhardt was NASCAR's rock star.
He had a little bit of that Elvis-cool swagger in him, mixed with some of John Wayne's true grit. He wore Wrangler jeans. Sported a thick 'stache. He went hunting and fishing and drove cars faster than anybody else, and was never afraid to bump another car out of the way if somebody was in his way.
He dropped out of school in ninth grade to pursue a career in racing, just like his daddy. He was simple, straightforward, hardworking, blue-collar. Then he put on the fire suit and became The Intimidator. He could bust you up in a hurry. And then beat you to the finish line.
"Even when you were with him, he was a bigger-than-life guy," said Ray Evernham, now a consultant with Hendrick Motorsports and a crew chief for many years. "He played the persona that he had to be Dale Earnhardt at the racetrack, but off site, he could also be Dale Earnhardt the friend or Dale Earnhardt the farmer.
"If you went farming with him, he'd put his gloves on and throw hay up on the loft. And if we went fishing, he fished. Very competitive person. I've seen and heard stories that you couldn't beat him out of the parking lot. He was fun, tough. He was a guy's guy."
Earnhardt's popularity fueled NASCAR's rise in the 1990s as he tangled with Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett and others.
And then, boom. He was gone.
Like friends and family, NASCAR hasn't recovered from the shock to the system. TV ratings have been down for years. Attendance, too. The economic pinch felt by everybody has been a factor, but the truth is that nobody can replace an icon.
"He was the ultimate fan hero," said Bobby Allison, a 2011 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee. "There were so many people who loved him or loved to boo him. But they made noise, and that caused more excitement to go on. He was the ultimate class act for our sport."
The sport continues to hold out for a hero.
Jimmie Johnson has won five consecutive Sprint Cup titles, and the worst thing is that not many fans can find the anger to scream or yell. There is much ambivalence.