Book Reviews





At the Altar of Speed
The Fast Life and Tragic Death of Dale Earnhardt

By Leigh Montville

Review by Rich Sheppard


"...Dale would attain icon status, ultimately becoming a martyr to the vast majority of NASCAR fans who considered Dale Earnhardt “the Intimidator” - he of the black car # 3 - their special favorite..."

NASCAR auto racing is America’s fastest-growing sport; for many parts of the country, most especially the South, NASCAR racing holds the same fervent appeal that hands-only football (that’s soccer!) holds for most of the globe.

NASCAR racing uses all made-in-the-USA technology to send cars and drivers around the circuits at speeds in excess of 200 mph: stock American brand auto bodies (Fords, Pontiacs, Chevys, etc.) combined with supercharged American-made engines, and of course, predominantly American-born drivers.

NASCAR’s big race is the Daytona 500, easily the Super Bowl of stock car racing. But unlike most sports’ penultimate event, Daytona runs near the beginning of the NASCAR year, and thereby sets the tone for the entire season, at the end of which the prized Winston Cup is awarded to the NASCAR champion.  

The prize for the big auto makers and sponsors is the crème-de-la-crème “young male” demo. For the daring drivers the rewards are fast drivin’, hard-livin’, mucho moolah, delightful dames, and, sometimes, an early trip to the graveyard. Measured this way, 7-time Winston Cup winner and NASCAR champion driver Dale Earnhardt fortunately and then unfortunately “had it all.”

Dale certainly had the makings of a race driver from the git go, being the son of journeyman driver Ralph Earnhardt, a stern and knowledgeable car aficionado who plied the South’s dirt track circuit as an oil-stained wanderer in the 50’s and 60’s. So from an early age Dale was exposed to the aborning years of stock car racing, before big sponsors, big money, fancy technology and astonishingly high speeds drove the sport into the marketing colossus it has become today. After quitting school – something he always regretted - Dale hustled around the stock car circuit, eventually finding the front-door key to any hope of a driving career – an owner/sponsor.

Earnhardt, even more than his immediate “ace driver” predecessor Richard “The King” Petty (who also won 7 Winston Cup NASCAR championships), was catapulted to racing sainthood on the slingshot of NASCAR’s incredible growth from the mid-eighties right down through today. Earnhardt, born in the small town of Kannapolis, North Carolina, caught the wave of collectibles rights fees, appearance money, multiple sponsorships, and all the accoutrements that go with celebrity and surfed on to become rich beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.  Dale would attain icon status, ultimately becoming a martyr to the vast majority of NASCAR fans who considered Dale Earnhardt “the Intimidator” - he of the black car # 3 - their special favorite.

And it would have likely continued, but for the 2001 Daytona 500. For all of his NASCAR accomplishments, Earnhardt had won the Daytona 500 just once in twenty tries, in 1998. On the very last lap of the 2001 Daytona (a race he would not have won), a race which would see his teammate Michael Waltrip gain his first ever NASCAR victory, Dale Earnhardt ascended to racing martyrdom. Earnhardt’s car was brushed by another vehicle and turned sideways, going nose-first straight into the wall at 180mph. Given the state of racing’s safety technology, it did not at first appear a bad crash. In fact, Dale had suffered a “basal skull fracture” from the impact and likely died instantly. His son, Dale Jr. finished 2nd in the race. For the balance of the 2001 racing year and likely going forward into an unseeable future, the car racing world showers tributes on Earnhardt, grieving for the loss of their finest.

Author Leigh Montville sums up the salient facts of the racer’s life for the uninitiated to get a better sense of Dale Earnhardt and his dominating influence on the sport. Apart from his description of Earnhardt’s closest friendship with his fellow driver Neil Bonnet (who also died during a previous Daytona 500), Montville generally skirts Earnhardt’s adult personal life, which, considering this book is about his racing career, isn’t such an oversight. Montville does discuss the safety issues surrounding the injury which caused Earnhardt’s death and recaps the debate about whether more robust head and neck restraints might have saved Earnhardt’s life. That seems likely though not definite. Whether additional restraints would or would not have saved Earnhardt’s life, for the man who was scarce afraid to muscle his way to the front by sheer force of will and bumps and grinds be damned, the restraints unless mandated would not have been part of his gear. “Winning” was Earnhardt’s passion, everything and sometimes everyone else just got in the way.