Russell’s Ramblings

Those who do not hear the music might think the dancer mad

It’s a Family Tradition

Dale0001Few people have impacted their industry like Dale Earnhardt, Sr. has on stock car racing. The Lake Norman Visitors Center is deluged by NASCAR fans each May and October as the Sprint Cup Race is conducted at the Lowe’s Motor Speedway in nearby Concord.  However, the Visitors Center feels the impact throughout the year as fans visit their favorite driver’s garages, many of which are located here at Lake Norman. Race fans, representing a great diversity of income levels, come from all over the country to spend their vacations here in the heart of NASCAR where stock car racing was born.

Perhaps no sport has a more zealous following and no sports figure has stirred such feelings as Dale Earnhardt – he was the Ty Cobb of the racing industry. If you are a race fan you either loved Dale Earnhardt or you pulled for any car but the infamous #3. There simply was no middle ground for “The Intimidator.”  I became a serious NASCAR fan in 1993. Then many people who rooted against Earnhardt cited that he was too cocky, but it was that self-confidence and risk-taking that attracted me. He was a master of the track, using a car like a painter uses his canvas. A seven-time Winston Cup (Sprint) Champion, perhaps only Richard Petty rivaled his records but no driver equaled his presence in stock car racing.

No one should meet his or her death at such a young age, only 49. But Dale Earnhardt died doing what he did so well – racing. Such a cliché but so true. His black Chevy Monte Carlo slammed into the wall at turn 4 on the last lap of the Daytona 500, considered the Super Bowl of NASCAR races.  He was holding off the pack from overtaking two cars he owned, Michael Waltrip who finished first, and his son, Dale Jr., who finished second. I sat on the edge of my couch watching as Earnhardt blocked for his DEI team. I was absolutely ecstatic as Michael and Junior crossed the finish line. Initially, some watching the finish didn’t know the accident had occurred and none of us knew how devastating it actually was when we saw the #3 car sitting silently in the infield. Later that evening a friend called to ask me had I heard the terrible news, “Dale Earnhardt died.” I was crushed. Even as I write this article, it’s difficult to hold back the tears welling up.

But the drivers got back in their cars the next Sunday much like the crew climbed back into the space shuttle after the Challenger and Columbia accidents and like a farmer plants the year after a drought. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. We can’t dwell on what could have been, only what can be.  Dale Earnhardt, riding shotgun for his team, got his drivers across the finish line. Then the #3 car made contact with another machine, drifted up the track and slammed against the wall. I suspect, if he were here, he would say with that characteristic smirk, “That’s racin.”

2001 Pepsi 400

2001 Pepsi 400

Later that year, Dale Jr, returned to Daytona in the Pepsi 400 where he went from 6th to 1st in the last few laps as Michael Waltrip, his teammate at DEI, this time held off the other challengers.  They finished in reverse order of their Daytona 500 Victories.  I’m not sure I will ever forget the scene of Junior climbing up on Michael’s #15 NAPA car and hugging him as tight as he could, both enjoying the victory that neither could celebrate earlier in the year.   Then in 2004, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won the Daytona 500, six years to the day after his father won his only title in the “Great American Race.”  Try and convince me God isn’t a NASCAR fan!

#3This weekend Dale Earnhardt’s grandson Jeffrey Earnhardt, Kerry’s son, will make his Nationwide Series debut at Watkins Glen.  It’s a tradition that runs deep in the Earnhardt family – a tradition filled with victory and pain.  This weekend Junior and Jeffrey will run their race.  They’ll swap some paint and run as hard as those Hendrick and DEI engines will turn and watching it all will be the man in black.  He’ll have the best seat in the house as his boys carry on the old family tradition.  And I’m sure, he’ll say with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye – “That’s racin’”

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August 8, 2009 Posted by | NASCAR Racing | , , , | Leave a comment