Racing a very personal sport
March 2, 2001
NASCAR is never going to be same. Many veteran fans have said that following the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt. To a person who doesn't follow the sport, that might not make much sense, but to those who do, it does.
You knew something was wrong right after the accident. Usually, Earnhardt would have gotten out of his wrecked car, and everything would have been all right. But he didn't. We learned a couple of hours later that he had died.
That was a couple of weeks ago, and it's still hard to believe what happened and that he is gone. Of course, we all knew the day was going to come when he would retire. But you just took it for granted that he was going to be on the NASCAR scene forever, and now he's not.
Getting started …
Racing, NASCAR and Earnhardt have been something I've been aware of for years through my career in newspapers. But other than covering the local races now and then, I didn't connect. I loved football and baseball and that's what I followed.
The last Major League baseball strike left me looking for a new favorite sport, and somehow I started watching the NASCAR races on Sunday afternoon. A union of baseball players may strike and cancel a World Series over money, but don't look for the drivers to get away with undermining the Daytona 500.
Racing is a game in which you don't get paid unless you race. And, you have to qualify every week to get your car into a race. You earn what you get and there are no guarantees.
As you start watching the races, you find a driver who becomes your favorite. It didn't take long, but I quickly became a fan of the No. 3 car and the Intimidator.
I followed him closely for about the last five or six years of his career. He didn't win another NASCAR title during that time, but he made some vivid memories.
Everyone remembers his victory at the Daytona 500, but the one I'll never forget was the year before. He wrecked and his car had flipped. While he was being loaded into an ambulance, he asked one of the wrecker guys to see if the car would start.
It started and Earnhardt climbed out of the ambulance, got in the car and went back down to pit row. They basically taped the car together with duct tape, and he finished the race.
That was something.
The fun part about NASCAR is that everybody has a favorite driver. Then there are some you like, and there're a few you don't like.
For instance, a lot of folks like the 88 car (Dale Jarrett), 2 car (Rusty Wallace), 6 car (Mark Martin), 28 (Ricky Rudd), 18 (Bobby Labonte) … and even, God help us, that 24 car (Jeff Gordon).
For a couple a couple of years, the Earnhardt-Gordon rivalry was extremely hot, especially for the fans. The drivers competed on the track and went home, but the fans jawed about it all week long. You have to live it to understand it, but there are strong feelings on that subject.
A lot of oldtime racing fans hate Gordon. (What's not to hate? He's young, good looking, and wins all the time.) In the past when Gordon was involved in a wreck, you might hear a great cheer from his non-fans, many of them dressed in black. (I thought that was unnecessary.)
Last week while I was talking with a veteran race fan about Earnhardt's death, he made the comment that he really didn't consider the new fans who started following NASCAR when Gordon was hot, true racing fans, but kinda "hangers on."
Well, maybe. But we all have to admit that for a time, Gordon had one heck of a car. While my guy wasn't winning any races, Gordon was, and that aggravated a lot of the No. 3 fans. Gordon, without a doubt, is a great driver.
From the way he acted, I believe Earnhardt knew that the sport needed a Jeff Gordon to build interest in the sport. You occasionally saw No. 3 on the No. 24 car's bumper, but you never saw him spin Gordon out.
They were the stars. When you started watching the race, you wanted to know where the No. 3 car was, and then where the No. 24 car was. And then you start checking out where the rest of the drivers were.
Gordon has cooled off some but I doubt he has won his last NASCAR championship. We'll have to see.
Why racing is fun …
Before returning to The Meridian Star last month, I worked at The Clarke County Tribune for the past four years. I wrote a weekly column, and probably the one that brought the most response started like this …
Never have I gotten more response from a column. People I didn't know would come up and give me their opinion. From then on, The Tribune was NASCAR central in Clarke County.
Rarely has a day gone by in recent years that I haven't talked to somebody about NASCAR and Dale Earnhardt. Shoulda, woulda, coulda … Such discussions are a big part of what makes being a race fan fun. My man would have won if this or that would have happened.
I never met Dale Earnhardt, but I feel like I knew him and had things in common with him. I started out in the real world about the same time he did, working like to heck to make a dollar and feed the family. I understand people who are consumed by their work and careers, and for Dale Earnhardt, it was racing.
It hurt bad when I found out he had died. I cried like a baby.
NASCAR won't be the same, and shouldn't be. Something is going to be missing from now on, and they'll never replace Dale Earnhardt just like they didn't replace Davey Allison.
But the races will go on and we fans will continue to follow and enjoy them. We'll still enjoy those beautiful machines racing around the track, especially at Talladega where they look like they are about to take off and fly.
Dale, thank you for giving it all you had. And I know today you are in a better place.
Steve Swogetinsky is regional editor of The Meridian Star. E-mail him at email@example.com.