Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Decade In Sports - Remembering Dale Earnhardt

Back in the early 90's when MLB once again had a players strike, I had enough. The pampered millionaires had sold the fans out and assumed we’d stand along side them. I was one of those fans that left baseball behind. But as a sports fan, I needed something to fill that void.  The only thing going on those summer months was Nascar. As I would tune in, only knowing that whoever I was rooting for would have to be sporting the Chevy Bowtie, something happened within my subconscious. Every week, a sinister looking black and silver race car with a bold forward italicized white number 3 would qualify in the back of the pack and within the first several laps would be fighting for the lead. I liked that guy, he was a racer and I had no idea who he was.  Turns out, at that time he was a five time champion. As time moved forward I became a big Nascar fan, not following baseball at all except to see a score here and there. I had the #3 die-cast cars, some shirts, posters and was enjoying a fun sports ride until February 18, 2001. In the last turn of the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, a tap from Sterling Marlin's Silver Bullet Dodge and an ensuing crash involving 3rd place running Dale Earnhardt had occurred. Everything changed in seconds.  I had seen many crashes that looked far worse, yet immediately something within made me feel this was different. Perhaps it was Ken Schrader’s reaction upon looking into the crippled #3 laying in the grass, maybe it was former driver, turned commentator Darrell Waltrip's nervous reaction and concern. DW's brother Michael had taken the checkered flag for his first Nascar win with Dale Jr. right behind him, both in Dale Earnhardt owned Chevrolets, not realizing immediately what had happened in their review mirrors. Moments later, we watched Junior jump out of his car leaving it stranded all alone on pit road as he sprinted towards the accident.  Maybe it was my own intuition. I just knew something wasn’t right. I saw the writing on the wall in my mind in a very literal sense.  A couple hours after the race, it was official. Nascar President Mike Helton announced that we had lost Dale Earnhardt. I was one of thousands (maybe millions) who mourned the passing of Dale Earnhardt. Yes, I cried.

As a fan who rooted for “The Intimidator”, remembering the triumphs and tragedies is still heartwrenching, because we know how it ended.  We watched a lot of success at Daytona except the elusive Daytona 500 which was finally captured in 1998.  Before that day, we watched the greatest driver of all time (in my opinion) find bad/strange luck in the biggest February race every single year.  We also watched him flip over multiple times at the 1996 July Talladega race, getting burned when flames from Bill Elliott’s car entered his cockpit. We remember Dale crying when he had to climb out of the car (with Mike Skinner climbing in) the following week after about 15 laps at the Brickyard 400 do to the injuries. We remember the 1997 Daytona 500, after being nudged by Jeff Gordon and flipping across the backstretch over and over and over, yet land right side up and finish the race once realizing the car would still start (Chevy tough). Then the crowning jewel, even though he never got that 8th Championship, he went on to win the cherished Daytona 500 on his 20th try on February 15, 1998.  After the race, something unprecedented happened; every crew member of every team lined up to greet the 7 time Champion at his proudest moment while he drove towards Victory Circle.  Dale Earnhardt wasn't pretty like Jeff Gordon and he wasn't a smooth talker like Richard Petty.  Dale Earnhardt was Superman, and we never could have imagined that Superman's kryptonite would be the concrete at Daytona. For me, it will probably remain the greatest sports story/tragedy of my lifetime.

I’m posting the closing laps of Dale’s last win at Talladega on October 15, 2000 when he went from 17th to 1st in just 6 laps. This why Dale was known as “The Intimidator” or "The Man In Black". This is why he had so many fans.  This guy was a racer.  Four months later, he was gone.

After that morbid day in February of 2001, I did start watching baseball again because watching Nascar without the black #3 was too painful. Heartbroken owner and Dale's closest friend Richard Childress retired the #3 in favor of #29 which was painted white for the rest of 2001. A brash young driver from the Busch Series that Childress had been grooming to be Earnhardt's eventual teammate in 'The Cup Series' was chosen to fill the seat of the famous Chevy.  In just his third race in the white #29 Goodwrench Chevy, Kevin Harvick nosed out Gordon by inches to win in Atlanta.  It was truly the moment the healing began.  While GM Goodwrench remained as primary sponsor for several years after Dale's death, the car is now sponsored by Shell/Pennzoil. However, a small #3 remains decaled just below the B-Pillar as a reminder of what that car represents.  Harvick has done an admirable job considering the pressure and focus thrust upon him, including winning the 2007 Daytona 500 in what is considered the greatest finish ever to that particular race.  Later, in the summer of 2001 when Nascar returned to Daytona on July 7, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won at the track that 5 months earlier had turned his world upside down.  It really felt at the time that Nascar would have the ability to move forward since two of Dale's most important legacies, his racing son and his car were winners.  What greater tribute could he have asked?

I don’t watch Nascar as I used to -- it will never be the same. I root for Dale Jr. when I do watch, but he’s not in the same league as his dad. It's starting to feel like potential missed. Another thing different about Dale Jr. that was never a concern for his father, he cares about what everyone thinks of him on and off the track. It makes him a super nice guy, but an average race car driver.  He seems to lack the 'killer instinct' so important in competition. I wish he could once again find the skills and temperment that he exhibited while running the Busch Series where he was a two-time Champion. Early in his 'Cup' career he also showed flashes of promise by dominating the Superspeedways for several seasons even after his dad's death.  Of course he had his own serious fiery crash driving an American Lemans Series Corvette in 2004 at Infineon in California. Watch video at 1:14 mark. Not surprisingly, he hasn't been the same since.

I guess if you're going to look at a silver lining, after Dale's death Nascar immediately put safety at the top of their priorities.  In 2000, Nascar lost 19 year old Busch Series driver Adam Petty (in May), a fourth generation racing Petty, at New Hampshire International Speedway.  He was killed instantly when his car struck the wall head on during practice.  Then in July at the very same track where Petty died, 30 year old Winston Cup driver Kenny Irwin was also killed during practice.  He too, struck the wall head on, flipping the car on it's side and eventually it's roof. Irwin likely died instantly of a basilar skull fracture.  However, it took losing the sport's biggest star to make them take action.  As someone who has seen pictures of Earnhardt's blood soaked cockpit, it was clear something had to be done.  Earnhardt was famous for wearing an open-faced helmet because he felt the full-faced helmet was heavier and could lead to severe neck injuries.  He also thought it blocked too much of his peripheral vision.  He also preferred to sit very low in the car for presumed safety reasons.  Sadly, the investigation showed that he was killed because the 5 point seat harness had failed, resulting in a broken neck when his face slammed into the steering wheel, hitting with such force, it was bent.  The autopsy also revealed a broken ankle from still having his foot jammed on the brakes upon impact.  Ken Schrader has never spoken publicly about what he saw as first man on the scene that day, but one can only imagine.  The following week, Dale Jr. switched to a full-faced helmet and in the ensuing weeks Nascar ruled that all drivers must wear a HANS (Head And Neck Support) device which attaches to the top of the seat keeping their heads pretty immobile.  Some of the drivers complained that it impeded on their movement, but Nascar smartly didn't budge, telling them to install more mirrors and rely on their spotters. 

The sport has changed a lot since that February day.  Perceivably good looking drivers with marginal skills get top rides so they can push sponsor products; the season points system has regressed into "The Chase" where you can shoot for 12th place through 26 races and try to turn it up for the last 10 to become Champion (note: Jimmie Johnson would be a 4 time Champ under the old rules too); the Car of Tomorrow was developed as a safer race car, yet destroyed the competition by not allowing manufacturers to be creative with design.  I think Nascar could have laid down basic ground rules that the car makers would've had to incorporate while still allowing for seperate identities.  The COT (as it's known) are all identical bodies for the four manufacturers.  The only thing differentiating a Chevy from a Ford from a Dodge from a Toyota are the decals and the engines.  Everything else is mandated by Nascar, making the racing uninspiring.  Yes, the sport has changed for the worse, but I was happy to have enjoyed it during the best of times.

Dale Earnhardt celebrates winning the 1998 Daytona 500.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this. It brought back alot of memories for me, both good and heartbreaking. I watched racing from when I was a child, though back then (1970's into the 1980's) not much was televised except for the Daytona 500 and Indy 500. I was more of an open wheel fan then, but switched to Nascar, I guess in the late 80's/early 90's and was then and always will be an Earnhardt fan. I cried in happiness when he finally won the Daytona 500, and cried again upon his death. I had an uneasy feeling too watching that wreck and the aftermath, particularly when the broadcast ended with no explanation of the extent of any injuries. The following week my heart stopped again when Junior was in a very similar accident on the 1st lap of the 1st race following his father's death; fortunately he walked away. I half heartedly watched for the rest of the season, but my interest seemed to have died with the Intimidator. A race without that black #3 just didn't seem right.

    I recently came back to the sport over the past two seasons, but as you noted, things are different and not always in a particularly good way, and yes, his son is my favorite when it comes down to it, even though the past 2 years have been so difficult for him. Dale Sr. will always be the face of Nascar as far as I am concerned, but things just aren't the same without The Man in Black.