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..."
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.