19 February, 2011

This was the genesis of "The Intimidator"

Ten years ago yesterday I was a younger boy, still a preteen, passively watching the Daytona 500 with my dad. At this point in my life I was a big sports fan, but I had not yet fostered/discovered my love for open wheeled motor sport. My mom was in the corner bedroom. When the crash happened, it looked like any other typical Daytona restrictor plate crash with cars sliding, hitting the wall, hitting each other, etc. I halfway remember the long pause in resuming the race, but I didn't know it was because of the medical team needing to take extra time in the infield. A short time later, both my dad and I were shocked to learn that Dale Earnhardt was dead.

I remember running into the bedroom to tell my mom, as the ESPN ticker was already scrolling constant updates about Earnhardt's death. Outside of that, though, I don't remember much more of that day. Later Dale's son would address the media by stoically saying that he'd cried for his father, but only to help himself feel better. People said Dale would have preferred to die on the track instead of in a road car or anywhere else, and I suppose they were right.

As young as I was, I don't think I fully grasped the importance of what just happened. At this point in my life I wasn't familiar with NASCAR or Earnhardt, and I certainly had even less knowledge of death in motor sports. As far as deaths in mainstream motor sport, NASCAR is still up there in terms of being dangerous. Earnhardt was its last death on the track in a Sprint Cup/Winston Cup race. In the U.S., only the IndyCar series has had more frequent deaths (namely in the lead up to the Indy 500). This is, of course, discounting the still very vulnerable drivers in Sprint Cars.

What I also didn't wholly understand was the legendary status that Earnhardt had carved for himself and would continue to develop posthumously, even today. It was fascinating to see NASCAR go through the same sort of safety revelation that Formula 1 went through after its last (to date) death in 1994, when the even more legendary (and no less controversial) Ayrton Senna was killed at Imola on the sport's darkest weekend in modern times. Suddenly open-faced helmets were gone. HANS devices became mandatory, the cabin size changed (especially with the Car of Tomorrow) to accommodate the driver better and give him/her more padding, and more anti-roll flaps appeared on the cars. SAFER barriers began to be installed, and arguably the face of the sport did too.

When Dale Jr. won at Daytona later that year (something I also vaguely recall watching), he simultaneously carved out a bit of a legend for himself as well. He won legions of his father's fans over to him, and many fans who were new to the sport jumped on his sentimental bandwagon. Most of his father's crew joined him for the next couple of years, but after they were left/were fired, Dale Jr.'s winning percentage plummeted.

Even today Earnhardt Sr.'s son remains NASCAR's most popular driver (through fan polls) despite only winning a single-digit number of times in the past few years. Some of his fans were given glimmers of hope when he won the pole for the Daytona 500 tomorrow, but a practice crash means he's now relegated to start at the back of the pack. This isn't to say his chances are over, though. Especially with the draft-fest that Daytona always is, it's possible to move through the field relatively easily compared to other tracks. In order to do that, though, he'll have to slice his way by 42 other cars while simultaneously avoiding the inevitable crashes that ridiculous restrictor plate racing always causes. He'll probably have to employ some of his father's dubious tactics of pushing people out of the way to get to the front too.

And as an aside, that's something I'd like to address. It's an aspect of Earnhardt Sr.'s life that too many people simplify or forget altogether. For the duration of his career, Dale Earnhardt was a dirty racer. He was a cheat. He certainly wasn't the type whose car fails inspection after the race (only to get to keep the victory but have his crew chief suspended for the next race...). He was, even by his own admission, the kind of guy with whom you could get wheel-to-wheel only to find yourself in the wall the next second. I can't even count the number of times this happened, and everyone from Richard Petty to Darryl Waltrip will reaffirm this. Many times it was blatant, but sometimes he made it look very accidental. Either way, the post-crash or post-race interview was the same: A coy response coupled with a sly smile. This was partially why people loved him. This was the genesis of "The Intimidator."

A few people exacted their revenge on him, but his reaction was the same as described above. It is perhaps a touch of irony, then, that in his final race he was actually driving defensively, as the two cars leading the race ahead of him were cars that he owned (including the one of his son). He was settling in, driving as clean a race as he could to avoid cautions, and yet a freak accident took his life.

Much like Senna's death in '94, mystery surrounded (and still partially does surround) Earnhardt's death. A fracture at the base of his skull was the official cause at the hands of a broken safety belt (something the belt manufacturer disputed). Either way, there's no doubt in my mind that his refusal to wear both a closed-face helmet and a HANS device contributed in some way to his death (especially the lack of a Head and Neck Support device). After all, at first glance the crash doesn't look that bad. Look at some of the crashes from the years before, some of the rollovers and some of the monster pileups. Guys walked away from those. Some just got bruises. Yet this seemingly tame crash killed Dale Earnhardt, the seemingly invincible driver.

What also bothers me these days is the uneducated fan support, especially in the run-up to tomorrow's Daytona 500. Quite a few people nowadays (especially with NASCAR's current, weirdly unique demographic) never saw Earnhardt Sr. in his prime. They only know him toward the end of his career, and they know his son from when he used to win a few races. Yet they elevate him to demigod status and praise what a great driver he was and would have been. And that's fine to speculate. His seven Winston Cup championships lend credence to that, too. But what I think many confuse is their love of him and their love of his legacy.

Earnhardt the man was very different from Earnhardt the legend. The truth about the confidential Dale was that he was serious as can be about the racing aspect of his life, but he loved to be on the farm and some of his more demure hobbies. Perhaps it's more fitting that this legend, as all good legends do, has some mythos involved alongside some smudged memories. In the eyes of his faithful, he was a strong-willed driver who refused to be pushed aside. He was larger than life and was not above getting revenge unabashedly. I suppose in that respect it's fine to ignore the drama, the feuds, the potentially life-threatening moves he pulled on people, and only focus on what he did for his fans. For no matter what anyone says, no matter how right they may be, Dale Earnhardt was NASCAR for many people, and he always will be. Classy or not, he brought an excitement that is rarely matched on the tedious Sprint Cup calendar, one that probably won't be seen again given the league's penchant for safety and dispelling personal grudges between drivers. And honestly, I'm fine with that.

I respect the man for his records and the fanbase he built, but I do not respect how he did it in all cases, and I certainly don't condone his driving style. While the intimidating revenge-seeker is appealing to some, for me it's far too NASCAR "trading paint" "rubbin' is racin'"-esque. It's one thing to win a race, but it's entirely another to push the guy out of the way and get by him. Perhaps that's why I only watch the Daytona 500 out of respect for motor sport and curious fascination with the event that some erroneously claim is the biggest race in the United States. Yes, being able to draft is a skill, but is a race where 40+ cars follow each other nose to tail around such a large oval that you never have to use the brake exciting to me? No. The Daytona 500 is a strategy race where no single person can win it alone. He has to have a drafting partner or else he plummets in the order, regardless of whether his solo laps were faster than any person's out there. Regardless of whether his team masterfully set up his car better than anyone else. And I think that's a little sad.

That's not to say that the ending won't be exciting. NASCAR has more cautions than you can shake a stick at, so of course the cars are bound to be bunched up at the finish. How many debris cautions will there be tomorrow? You can bet at least one or two. But if you're refuting this, then ask yourself, when that caution does come out, why does it take more than one lap of a 2.5 mile track for one person to sprint to the piece of debris, pick it up, and sprint back? I've never understood this.

But I digress. Tomorrow is sure to be a touching day, one driven by emotions and tributes. Honestly, I wouldn't mind seeing Dale Jr. do well. He's not a consistent race winner anyway, and if there was ever a race to win, this planets-aligned event would be a good one. No doubt his father and grandfather's spirits will be there pushing him on. No matter what happens, though, let's hope for a clean race and a safe one, as well.

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