Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The ultimate NASCAR moments: No. 1

In the days leading up to his 23rd Daytona 500, Ralph Dale Earnhardt shared the same declaration with anyone who would listen.

"I've got it all, man! I really do have it all!"

The seven-time Cup champion was 49 going on 29. He'd spent his first four fist-clenched decades clawing his way out of the cotton mill and into a race car, no matter what the cost. Young Dale left a trail of wreckage in his wake. Unpaid bills, fractured friendships, two failed marriages, three children who barely knew him, and a pile of ruined race cars.

But this, Earnhardt's fifth decade, had been dedicated to repairing that damage. His third marriage was a wall-to-wall success. His fourth child had become such a permanent resident nestled in his arms that friends had long joked that she'd never learn to walk. Inspired by his newfound knack for fatherhood, he worked to make sure his three older children became a part of his life.

On the track, he'd mended fences with his enemies, even befriending Darrell Waltrip, his most bitter rival of the 1980s. He'd bridged the gap between the eras of Richard Petty and Jeff Gordon, making the unheard-of transition from his sport's least respected racer to the garage's elder statesman.

Dale was also still damn good behind the wheel. He was making noise about an unprecedented eighth Cup title after finishing second in the 2000 points standings, an effort anchored by a mind-bending dash from 18th to first at Talladega in October. What's more, Earnhardt was now a team owner with three Dale Earnhardt Inc. cars in the field, driven by handpicked protégé Steve Park; Waltrip's little brother, Michael; and one of those formerly distant kids, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

In those days before the Daytona 500, Earnhardt had pledged to help NASCAR promote its 53rd season in grand style. He volunteered for television interviews, offered promotional aid to help FOX kick-start the first race of a new billion-dollar television package.

"I think it's important for those of us who have earned so much because of NASCAR to give back," he said two days before the race. "I want to make sure I have as much impact as I can in growing this sport."

On Sunday, Feb. 18, 2001, the hype was quieted and replaced with racing. With one lap to go in the Great American Race, The Intimidator was playing The Defender, running third and shamelessly blocking the wad of cars behind him, helplessly herded behind his ever-widening back bumper. Why? Because the two cars up front were his cars. That's right -- Michael and Junior were running 1-2, and by God, Dale was going to make sure they finished that way.

Then suddenly, the unthinkable happened.

Between Turns 3 and 4, Earnhardt took a shot from the impatient pack. The famous No. 3 car wobbled left, then darted up the banking and into the wall. To first-time NASCAR viewers, the millions who had been lured to their televisions in no small part because of his efforts, the crash didn't look like much. The car sustained little damage and limply drifted to the infield grass. Compared with the multicar melee earlier in the race, one that sent Tony Stewart's car end-over-end through the air, this looked like nothing.

The wreck that killed Dale Earnhardt didn't seem that bad to the casual fan. Longtime followers knew better. Much has changed in NASCAR since the accident, and a lot of that change came because of Earnhardt's death.

Because of the near-instantaneous loss of momentum and the angle at which the car struck the wall, old-school fans knew better. And Darrell Waltrip, working his first race as a color commentator, knew it as well, so much so that he was unable to celebrate his brother's first career win.

His heart wanted to go downstairs to Victory Lane, but his head was saying "Get to the hospital."

Earnhardt had died instantly, killed in the final turn of NASCAR's biggest race in front of its largest-ever television audience.

The blow staggered the sport like no other of the many deaths it had absorbed over the decades. Not Little Joe Weatherly and Fireball Roberts in '64. Not Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison in '93. Not even Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty less than one year earlier.

To NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt was Elvis … John Lennon … JFK. People will never forget where they were when they found out. Everyone will remember the moment our racing innocence was ripped away.

Once the initial shock wore off, everyone agreed that his death marked the end of an era. What no one could know, what no one could even imagine, was that The Intimidator's impact on the sport he loved was only just beginning.

His death sparked initial ugliness, with finger-pointing, an investigation and accusations. But soon knee-jerk reactions evolved into, simply, action. NASCAR mandated head and neck restraints, devices Earnhardt himself had resisted. Everything within the drivers' cockpit cocoon was redesigned, from seats to headrests to belt harnesses, and tracks began wrapping their concrete retaining walls with energy-absorbing materials.

The weeks after Earnhardt's death were filled with memorial services, from impromptu candlelight vigils in small-town churches to trackside ceremonies before every stop on the Winston Cup schedule.

Park won the next week at Rockingham, and two weeks later, Kevin Harvick -- the youngster who took over the GM Goodwrench Chevy -- narrowly defeated Gordon at Atlanta. Throughout the entire season, fans paid tribute to their hero with a three-finger salute during each race's third lap.

Dale's death made things happen that had never happened to us before. We were on the cover of Time magazine, The New York Times, the lead story on the network news. People gravitated to the sport to see what the fuss was all about.

H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler

Through it all, the audience grew. TV viewership reached never-before-seen levels. Tracks couldn't sell tickets fast enough. And NASCAR-themed newspapers and magazines flew off the shelves.

Earnhardt had promised to grow his sport, and damn it, that's exactly what he was doing.

"Dale's death made things happen that had never happened to us before," said H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, president of Lowe's Motor Speedway and a friend of Earnhardt's for more than 30 years. "We were on the cover of Time magazine, The New York Times, the lead story on the network news. People gravitated to the sport to see what the fuss was all about. When he was killed, it also opened some very cocky eyes in the garage and forced drivers to embrace the new safety advances.

"If Dale Earnhardt can die in a race car, anyone can. As sad as it was -- and is -- to race without him, he changed the way we race by not being here."

Six years later, the pain of Feb. 18, 2001, doesn't sting quite as sharply as it did that day, but the impact of the moment endures. Fans still wear the 3. The Earnhardt family, together or apart, still races.

And the safety revolution continues to roll on, providing an increasingly more protective environment even as the racing itself becomes increasingly more fierce.

Six years later, thanks to Dale, we have it all. We really do have it all.

Even if we'd trade it all in to get him back.

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