As I write this, it has been ten years and a day since “The Intimidator” lost his life at Daytona International Speedway on the final lap of “The Great American Race”. On that day a piece of the sport many of us grew up in and around died with Dale Earnhardt.
I was a Dale Earnhardt lover. I was a Dale Earnhardt hater. I raced against him a couple of times. I watched him race hundreds of times. I watched him bring his kids through the ranks of short tracks like Tri-County Motor Speedway, where I was fortunate to work. Through all those races, good or bad, I grew to respect the things he did with a race car and the things he did outside that race car, but most of all, I grew to respect the fact that Dale Earnhardt was always the same Dale Earnhardt, from the first time I saw him till that fateful February day in 2001. By that I mean, if he knew you, he was approachable, friendly, somewhat shy, always direct, and always Dale. If he didn’t know you, well let’s just say he was always Dale. Personality and legend aside, he was simply one of the best drivers to ever strap into the seat of a race car.
Since that February day, many things have changed in the world of racing. Bill France passed the reins to another generation. NASCAR finally took notice of some of the glaring safety concerns brought on by the deaths of Tony Roper, Kenny Irwin, Adam Petty and finally “The Intimidator”. As tragic those deaths were, there is no way to know how many more injuries were prevented and lives were saved by their sacrifices. Drivers who in my humble opinion, in the cases of Petty, Irwin and possibly even Roper, were the beginning of the next generation of “hero’s” that would carry our sport forward. You see, even Dale knew he wouldn’t be around forever; witness the things he built to carry on his legacy.
Since that February day, every conceivable theory on the success or failure of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., rules, races, and NASCAR itself have been attributed to Dale Earnhardt or that day. I can’t imagine the immense weight Dale, Jr. carries to this day having to live up to the legend “Senior” created. He has had his up’s and down’s since his father’s death just as every other son has to carry some of his father’s legacy after their father’s death. Dale, Jr. has had to do that under the scrutiny of hundreds of cameras, microphones and pens of someone trying to get the “next big story”. Damn shame he can’t just do what he wants to do like the guy next door. But, he’s a grown man and is in charge of his own destiny.
Since that February day, I guess everyone has been building towards this tenth anniversary of the death of Dale Earnhardt. There were the three fingers held high on lap three of the races in 2001. There was the first through ninth anniversaries of Dale’s death. And now, finally, the tenth anniversary has come and gone. Well not completely finished since on Sunday, TV, radio, NASCAR and the Daytona Internatonal Speedway will continue to remind us of that tragic day. Everyone will stand and quietly raise three fingers in the air in tribute on lap three of the “Great American Race”. Maybe I’m missing something here but I’ll bet Dale would rather everyone stand and cheer or boo him just like we all did when he was on the track. How he did love the fans.
Since that February day, there have been many tributes to the life and legend of Dale Earnhardt. Probably millions of words have been written. Statues have been erected. Songs have been sung. Poems have been written. But most importantly, races have been run.
Since that February day, so much has changed. I don’t even remotely feel anyone should ever forget the things Dale Earnhardt has done or fail to honor his memory. But, I do feel everyone in our sport should do everything possible to continue to build our sport into something Dale Earnhardt and the legion of others who have given their lives to the sport, would be proud of. That would be the best possible way to honor the memory and legacy of Dale Earnhardt and the others before and after him.
Since that February day, while never forgetting what he did for us, most of us have moved on with our lives. I believe Dale Earnhardt would have done the same.