Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dale Earnhardt: NASCAR's Worst Day

Things happen in our world that no man can possibly understand much less think he can even possibly control. Realty can be far more perilous and amazing than a creature’s ability who only uses ten percent of its brain could ever comprehend. The ironies and fate alone are far complicated with their truth and meaning only revealed through small glimpses, little snapshots, and gentle whispers. Still, the human race yearns for certainty and the meaning of it all to be shouted loud and clear.

How could a mere auto race, a scheduled sporting event, 43 men driving around in circles behind the wheels of fantastically powerful automobiles for 500 miles when one of those 43 men can be just a fraction of an inch in his car ahead of driver #2 and gain instant fame and notoriety while the mortal risks that such men put at stake are ominous beyond rationality?

As preparations crank into high gear for the 2011 running of the Daytona 500, the first event of a long, grueling stock car season, sports fans the world over look back to tens years ago when not only the greatest challenges of one sport but the ironies of life could be more evident.

While perhaps it was beyond perception at the time, ominous portents were beaming from the heavens and steaming up from the earth in February, 2011, and no place could that seem more evident than in the state of Florida where the events of “Speed Week” are an annual ritual where crowds in the tens of thousands flock to the Florida race track for the sport’s most prestigious event.

As the 2000 NASCAR season was winding down to celebrate the coronation of its champion, an uproar in Florida had the whole nation on edge. The United States had just endured its closest Presidential election where the decisive results would be determined by the vote in Florida where George W. Bush and Al Gore were just a few hundred votes apart. After conceding defeat then promptly invalidating his concession, Al Gore initiated a legal battle that would lead to recounts, numerous court decisions ultimately to be determined by the United States Supreme Court. The fate of the most powerful nation in the world was determined by just a few hundred votes from the Sunshine state. Those on the losing end were still furious just days after the inauguration of a new President.

The nation’s biggest sporting event, the Super Bowl, was also held in Florida just three weeks earlier. A team that never won the Super Bowl before beat a historic team representing the nation’s largest city as the Baltimore Ravens clobbered the New York Giants 34-7. The trophy was the second for the City of Baltimore who had lost their beloved Colts to Indianapolis but received the team which had been the Cleveland Browns, one of the few teams never to compete in the big game. NFL fans in Cleveland had no patience for the irony behind Baltimore winning its second Lombardi Trophy, and for those, the Ravens victory seemed as tainted as angry democrats perceived the election of George W. Bush to be, but ultimately what matters are results and who won.

Against this background the 2001 Daytona 500 created high expectations surrounded by more hype and publicity than ever before. The sport of NASCAR was attempting to elevate its status to rival the mighty NFL. The broadcast would mark the beginning of NASCAR moving almost its entire schedule from cable to network TV. The Fox network’s promotional efforts began during the football season. They were ready to use its full broadcasting resources to kick NASCAR to the next level. The race marked the return of Dodge to the sport for the first time since the early 1980’s.

From when the cars rolled off their haulers, the buzz focused on a familiar name, Dale Earnhardt. The 2000 season showed the seven time champion back in top competitive form while his son Dale Jr. had won rookie of the year honors with his father as owner. The senior Earnhardt was ready to run for his eighth championship and second Daytona 500 in a car owned by his longtime friend, Richard Childress. Meanwhile, he fielded a competitive team of his own. Joining his team of his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Park, veteran driver who had yet to win a points earning race, Michael Waltrip joined Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. Fox television looking for an angle to attract fans had their cameras trained tight on the series most accomplished champion competing at that time. The Earnhardt/Childress camp was confident as Earnhardt created dreams of an Earnhardt 1-2-3 finish that he, of course would have the best chance at being number one.

The senior champ was pumped full of enthusiasm. His old foe and close friend, Darrell Waltrip was in the TV booth as a commentator for the race joined by Larry McReynolds who was crew chief for the Intimidator’s victory in 1998. Waltrip’s wife, Stevie, greeted him before the race giving him a note of encouragement with a message from Proverbs 18:10 written on it which the champ taped to his dash.

Terry Bradshaw waived the green flag as the starting field accelerated up to speed. Bill Elliot led from the pole but would only lead one lap enroot to a 5th place finish. In the early stages of the race, the high degree of drama was fed by an edgy calm with Ward Burton making Dodge’s decision to return to NASCAR look brilliant leading the most laps. The longer the race continues like tension building a lot a fault line – no one really questioned if but when the big one would occur and fate certain came true on lap 173 as cars were checking down to be ready for the final push. Robby Gordon and Ward Burton made contact and suddenly cars were spinning and crashing in full demolition mode. Tony Stewart’s car sailed aloft while Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, and Rusty Wallace were knocked out of the race as Tony Stewart’s car found its final resting place across team mate, Bobby Labonte’s car. Observing the mayhem, Dale Earnhardt screamed in his radio, “They’d better do something out here or somebody’s going to get killed.”

The red flag lifted and green flew, the race was on in the scurry for the jackpot. Before the race, Dale Earnhardt boasted that he and his guys, Dale Jr. and Mikey (Michael Waltrip) would be leading the train. Piece by piece in the final segment, that’s just what happened with Michael Waltrip getting the best of it with Dale Jr. his partner from behind. Dale was leading the rest of the pack with Sterling Marlin and others attempting to find the right circumstances to manipulate the draft and blast ahead. The competition was intense as cars were flirting with disaster bunched up as restrictor plate races usually are. As the white flag dropped, Michael Waltrip held the lead with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in second. Meanwhile, Dale Earnhardt was pushing and pulling using every last ounce of sweat he had to hold off the remaining field as he pushed his guys to victory probably thinking if he saw any shot to blow past them, he would. Dale Earnhardt had a pack of cars right behind him including Sterling Marlin flirting with the drivers’ side of the #3 car and Kenny Schrader to Earnhardt’s right. As the cars entered turn three, they ran out of wiggle room, and perhaps something smaller than a wiggle set tragedy in motion as Earnhardt lost control of his car heading as a missile straight into the wall as Schrader plowed into his car broadside. Earnhardt’s and Schrader’s cars came to rest on the infield just below turn four. As hell broke out in turn four Michael Waltrip crossed the finish line with Dale Earnhardt Jr. crossing second. For a fleeting moment, Michael Waltrip, who never won a point’s race before, achieved his sport’s greatest victory. As he slipped away from all mortal bonds and the angels carried his soul aloft, did Dale Earnhardt know the great victory he created with his driving, his ownership, his guidance, his friendship, and his fatherhood?

Few watching the sport had any idea how serious the wreck was. Darrell Waltrip was yelling in joy as his kid brother took the checkered flag but when he looked toward the scene of the wreck tears welled up in his eyes as he said softly, “I hope Dale’s okay.”

The 15 car moved on to victory lane and the celebration began. Dale Jr. ran off to the wreckage where a frantic Ken Schrader had just been shown freaking out as the safety crews approached. Something ominous was going on but who would have known.

Soon, Waltrip’s joy turned curious. Where was his teammate? Even more so, where was his owner/friend?

Dale Earnhardt’s body was loaded into an ambulance which headed slowly to the Halifax Medical Center in Daytona. Could the viewers infer that something was clearly wrong? The celebration continued in pit road as dark clouds of doom set in over the celebratory spirit. Mike Joy, Larry McReynolds, and Darrell Waltrip had to promptly exit their broadcast since the red flag after the “big one” forced the race overtime. They could only say so much. Things happened so fast and the news hadn’t been made official Nobody knew.

Richard Childress, the Earnhardt family, and NASCAR officials rushed to the hospital into a joyless chamber of broken dreams. Mike Helton, NASCAR President, gathered the press. “We lost Dale Earnhardt.”

The sport’s greatest driver gave his life in the sports’ greatest event where Dale Earnhardt had experienced some of his greatest successes winning everything imaginable many times over while it would take twenty years after coming so close so many times to win the big one just three years prior to the saddest day.

NASCAR soldiered on. The next Sunday, the traveling carnival would go to the next town on its schedule, Rockingham, North Carolina. The Childress team rushed Busch Series driver up to the senior circuit to fill the legendary seat. The #3 car was repainted in opposite colors from the mighty “Intimidator” scheme. Number 29 replaced the famous three. How horrible could fate be than watching Dale Earnhardt Junior crash hard and be removed from the race? His failure in his first race alone without his dad seemed unspeakably cruel. Yet, as so often would prove in this drama, ironies abound. Steve Park, driver of the #1 Dale Earnhardt Incorporated team won the race.

Two weeks later in Atlanta, the irony of redemption rang out as Dale Earnhardt’s crew and the driver assigned to awesome task to fill his spot on the Childress team held off Jeff Gordon’s challenge won the Atlanta race, a huge triumph in the healing process. For Richard Childress and his team as well as Dale Earnhardt’s team, the best therapy was on the race track.

The NASCAR caravan returned to Daytona on July 7, 2001. In the sports first return to the site of the tragedy, fans and drivers alike would have to come to terms again with what happened in February. How would young Earnhardt Jr. handle facing the location of where he lost his father? One might think the weight of the world rested on the shoulders of the rising star. What better could he do other than winning the race itself which he did valiantly and ironically, team mate Michael Waltrip finished second, a reverse of their ill-fated victory from February.

Tragedy and irony would befall the sport again in September. One September 11, 2001 four airliners were hijacked by Islamic terrorists. Two planes stuck the World Trade Center in New York causing both towers to tumble to the ground, another airliner crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. A fourth jet crashed to the ground in Pennsylvania as heroic passengers fought their captures refusing to be murdered creating a greater murder possibly at the United States Capitol. Close to 3000 Americans were senselessly murdered by pure evil. All US air traffic was grounded as a mighty nation attempted to figure out its direction in the wake of the tragedy. The NASCAR race scheduled for Loudon, New Hampshire was postponed to the end of the year. The next race on the schedule, September 23, 2001 would be the Cal Ripken Jr. 400 in Dover, Delaware, just a short distance from Baltimore and Harford County where Ripken grew up. A famous Junior who wore number eight waved the green flag for another Junior in car number eight. Both Junior’s had fathers from simple origins who were tough-minded souls, all knuckles and know-how. The race bore Ripken’s name in honor of his approaching retirement at the end of the season. Wouldn’t it be so poetically just that Dale Earnhardt Junior should win that race?

The season finished a week late in chilly New Hampshire. Somehow, a cold finish far from home would seem ironically just for a season that chilled the hearts of all its followers on the date, November 23rd, the day after Thanksgiving, ironically known as “black Friday.” Jeff Gordon who was fighting hard to succeed as NASCAR’s top driver from his inspiration and sometimes mentor, Dale Earnhardt won the championship, his fourth making Gordon only the third man to win four championships, the first since Dale Earnhardt. But the younger Gordon found all paths to equaling the great Earnhardt and Petty mark of seven stopped cold. The following season, Gordon would introduce a new driver to the Cup series, a young man from California, who’d race in a car owned by Gordon himself and Rick Hendrick, Jimmie Johnson. Johnson would soon race to the top of the NASCAR world now holding an amazing five championships and counting all won consecutively. Gordon, Johnson, Earnhardt Jr., and an old sidekick of Earnhardt Sr.’s, Mark Martin are now all Hendrick teammates.

Ten years have passed since Dale Earnhardt’s shocking death in 2001. As the NASCAR season prepares to begin anew in Daytona, there is no angle of the sport today that does not bear Dale Earnhardt’s influence. The commitment to safety quickly became an obsession with NASCAR hoping to never lose another driver. One can’t forget that NASCAR’s #1 family, the Petty Klan, had lost their fourth generation driver, Adam, at Loudon, NH just the year before Earnhardt’s death. The use of the HANS device designed to prevent rapid head movement and snapping a driver’s neck was promptly implemented. SAFER barriers were erected giving energy saving wall technology to soften direct impact with the outer barriers. The Sprint Cup race car was completely redesigned with safety in mind. All angles are taken into account so as to never lose another driver in action.

Surely at least one driver’s life has been saved with the new technologies coming into play but being serious because not all of them were used. Last year’s first race at Pocono had a horrible crash with Elliot Sadler at the wheel of the #19 RPM Ford hitting a solid dirt wall head on. The external danger was inexcusable but the car and its safety equipment allowed Sadler to escape unharmed. One thing’s for certain, when the Sprint Cup Tour races at Pocono this spring, that area of the track will be properly reengineered.

Recent years since Dale Earnhardt’s death have not been kind to his sport. The state of the economy, higher gas and transportation costs, and a troubled US auto industry have forced cutbacks through out the sport, teams closing shop, and other teams merging. Attendance and TV ratings are way down while the sport is witnessing history in the making as Jimmy Johnson’s awesome reign of success continues forward.

For the Earnhardt name, things have not been good either. With the angry departure of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Eury Jr. from DEI and then seeing DEI merge with Chip Ganassi’s operation, it’s clearly Ganassi who’s in charge there and the Earnhardt name is just an after thought.

Dale Earnhardt Junior looked like a future champion earlier in the decade but from his final season with the family business and the move to Hendrick which should have liberated him to reach new heights. Instead, his career has been stuck in reverse. Still, Junior remains NASCAR’s most popular driver often getting more attention than the current five time champion.

Of course part of what made the Dale Earnhardt era so exciting was not just the driver himself, his bold moves, his aggressive style of driving, and of course the wins, it was the great rivalries he created with his fellow competitors which stirred up even more passion taking on Bill Elliott, Darrell Waltrip, Geoff Bodine, Rusty Wallace, and Jeff Gordon.

As close as the racing is today, it’s incredible that there aren’t such obvious rivalries anymore. Wouldn’t anyone who challenges Jimmie Johnson create a great story? Tony Stewart, for one, is a driver who certainly has the ability to create the kind of intensity the Intimidator once provided.

Dale Earnhardt’s legacy far exceeded his accomplishments on the track. His story growing up in a racing family struggling to make ends meet, the untimely death of his father, and his rise up through the sport without the support of a huge organization at first created a level of interest and empathy not afforded to today’s drivers from much more well-off backgrounds. That despite creating a powerful racing empire, Earnhardt and his owner, Richard Childress, never abandoned their humble roots and quietly helped out fellow racers and their community purposely avoiding the spotlight, but the stories of kindness could not be kept quiet. When not on the race track, Dale would be more likely shoveling shit on his farm than shooting it with the celebrity set.

The decade that has past since NASCAR’s darkest day, the loss of a true modern hero, gives pause for reflection not only celebrating one of the two true titans of NASCAR but also how the sport has carried on since that fateful day. Starting 2011, NASCAR is safer and more competitive. The sport even has an active driver who might win more than the magic seven that distinguish Earnhardt and Richard Petty alone atop the field of the entire sport. Despite all that has happened in the last ten years, NASCAR remains in a process of redefinition. For two decades, if someone asked what is NASCAR all about, all one would have to do is point to the #3 Chevrolet. Today, that answer is not as clear.

Here’s to Dale Earnhardt – he made his sport and all who understood him better for the experience. Is absence is still as hurtful as it was a short ten years ago.


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