- Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 February 2011 00:00
- Published on Wednesday, 23 February 2011 00:00
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Ten years ago last weekend, after a long, drawn-out period that seemed like hours of worry and dread, NASCAR President Mike Helton stepped to the podium on national television and announced what we already knew in our hearts, “Today, on the final lap of the Daytona 500, we lost Dale Earnhardt.”
It was the most dramatically horrible driver death in NASCAR’s history. We didn’t read about it in the next day’s paper. We saw it happen live on our TV screens. We saw it over and over in instant replay. Slow motion and actual speed. The wreck was not at all spectacular. We see race crashes nearly every week that are far scarier. Yet this time the window net did not come down. No shots of Earnhardt climbing out of the battered car and throwing his helmet in disgust. Nothing.
Nothing confirms your worst fears like that awful uncomfortable scene. None of the talking heads want to say the wrong thing. How could this have happened? Not to Dale Earnhardt. The man was indestructible. Hard to believe it has been 10 years. Earnhardt was just two months shy of his 50th birthday that terrible February afternoon. Had he not lost his life in the crash, Earnhardt would be turning 60 on April 29. It’s hard to picture Earnhardt at 60.
Then again, I recently saw a news clip of Earnhardt’s daughter, Taylor, representing Richard Childress Racing and the Earnhardt family at last year’s Goodwood Speed Festival in England. We all remembered Taylor as the little girl we saw in so many victory lane photographs posed between Dale and Teresa. The child of the third marriage, the one where old iron head finally got it right. The happy marriage. The one after all the hard years of dead end jobs. The struggles of trying to make it were behind. Taylor was the child of privilege. It was one of those moments that makes you remember the passage of time. The small child I remembered was now a pretty adult lady in a Goodwrench fire suit hot lapping a #3 Chevrolet Richard Childress Racing had shipped over for the event.
Ten years later, and the sport has yet to produce another talent with comparable driving skills, charisma and irascible personality to inspire, infuriate and generally make people fall in love with the sport. They talk and write a lot about how the younger generation is just not getting hooked on the sport. It’s a shame they didn’t get a chance to see Earnhardt at work.
For all his unquestioned driving talent, Dale Earnhardt was seemingly luckless in the “Great American Race,” finishing second four times before finally winning the 500 in 1998. Victories slipped away due to bizarre circumstances, ranging from a seagull damaged front fender to a last lap flat tire.
Still, the seven-time Cup Series Champion was hands down the favorite every time the green flag waved at Daytona. He twice won the July race at Daytona, and won one of the dual qualifying races for the 500 a dozen times, including every Speedweeks qualifying race he was in from 1990 to 1999.
Earnhardt won the Busch Series, now Nationwide series race at Daytona, seven of the 15 times he entered it, capped by the final five times he competed between 1990 and 1994.
He finished outside the top five in the “Bud Shootout” only once, wining the non-points race six times, including 1980, the first year he became eligible.
His results in the now discontinued International Race of Champions were similar: six victories in 13 starts against stars from both international and domestic racing series.
Richard Petty, the sport’s only other seven-time champion said of Earnhardt, “Dale came along at the right time. He took the sport to another level.”
Car owner and longtime friend Richard Childress explained Earnhardt’s unique appeal this way: “So many people knew Dale Earnhardt the racecar driver, but they also knew him as a person that worked on his farm throwing hay and tending his cattle.”
Joe Gibbs said of Earnhardt, “I used to kid him, telling him that he could have played linebacker for me. He was so tough. He gained everyone’s respect by the way he handled adversity. Dale was a real man’s man. He was one tough dude.”