I should probably confess that I was never a Dale Earnhardt fan.
He was the guy poised to unseat a King, and I was a loyal subject of Richard Petty.
The two legends had tied for first place as seven time Cup champions, and Earnhardt was capable of an eighth crown-even at almost 50 years old.
However nobody wanted Earnhardt’s career to end so tragically.
A NASCAR career was great for Earnhardt, but the Intimidator was even greater for NASCAR. He added a competitive fire to NASCAR‘s rise in popularity in the late 20th century.
He was a great loss that lingers to this day.
He also added celebrity and flair during a transitional period in which a new generation of generic drivers and race philosophies had entered the game.
The sport had morphed into a new era of slick multi-million dollar engineering wonder cars that owed their success to a herd of nerds with advanced degrees in the science of motion.
But these new age Einsteins had never met the Intimidator. Earnhardt flew by the seat of his race suit and an unconquerable will to win at any cost.
He never got on the radio and whined about his car, he just drove it. He could drive junk and still win a race. He was that good.
The Intimidator was an old school driver from a bygone era of bumping and banging on the track. It was just racing in the only way that Earnhardt knew how to race-all out and all in to win.
The evolution of Earnhardt’s career was a direct path toward his identity as The Man in Black. Even his famous number 3 Chevy was black, and it was the last sight that any driver wanted to see in his rear view mirror. Especially when the race was on the line.
The car seemed like a wild animal on the track as Earnhardt made his run to the front. Every driver in the Intimidator’s way knew that he was about to be passed or run over- the decision was temporarily in his hands, not Earnhardt’s.
Linger too long and Earnhardt was happy to make the choice for an unlucky driver. His aggressive style made him a hero in black to many fans and villain in exactly the appropriate colors to other race fans.
There was never a shade of gray to Earnhardt’s race career.
I realized that Earnhardt was clearly a very popular driver in NASCAR’s inner world when he finally won the Daytona 500. Every crew member from every team was there to congratulate him on his way to the winner’s circle.
He had finally beaten the track after decades of disappointment and heartbreak.
It was a magic moment in the long history of Daytona and it was destined to be Earnhardt’s finest hour at the track that had been so incredibly difficult for him.
The 2001 Daytona 500 was The Intimidator’s last race and it ended his life in what looked like a very survivable wreck. But racing is a very dangerous way to earn a living and things didn’t work out for Dale Earnhardt that day.
The Man in Black would simply say; “That’s racing”.
Those of us who love NASCAR will never understand that logic after his tragic departure from the sport.
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ROBERT:”I never cared for Dale Earnhardt the driver but I sure a hell respected him. It seemed that he was always tapping the guy that was leading the race on the left rear fender sending him spinning into the infield. I think they called it the Earnhardt horn or some such thing? He sure was fun to watch. I never thought he’d win the Daytona 500 especially after the year he was leading the race until the last lap and had a tire go flat. I know even the Earnhardt haters felt bad for him. RIP Dale Earnhardt.
GORDIE:”Dale was like NO other – when he was still with us; there were like 7-10 souvenir trailers at every event for the 3 car – everyone else had like 2, max.